A lot of grammar books say that with living things (a cat, a man), one can only use an -'s , for or double genitive so the only correct ways to say that a boy owns a hat are:

A boy's hat (apostrophe s)

A hat for a boy (for)

A hat of a boy's (double genitive)

And most books say also that "of" can be only used with inanimate objects, ex : the door of the house, the map of the garden...etc. So I came to understand that a clause like that is completely incorrect :

the computer of the family ❌❌❌

But like that it's correct:

the family's computer ✔✔✔✔

Then I discovered that "of" can also be used with animate objects, not just inanimate things, and that I can also use compound nouns.

So these two turned out to be correct:

the computer of the family ✔✔✔

the family computer ✔✔✔

But I'm wondering what are the differences in meaning between all of those ways to indicate possession, and whether all of them truly grammatically correct. If so, why do a lot of grammar books say that of is incorrect with living things like people or animals?

More importantly, are there any other ways to indicate possession other than the ones listed above?

  • 2
    The title of your question isn't actually the same as the body of your question. Looking only at the title, I would say that the sentence the tree's leaves turned colour is grammatical—and it's using a possessive s with an inanimate object. But that's not what the body of your question is asking (which has nothing to do with something being animate or not). Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 0:32
  • 1
    "A hat of a boy's" is meaningless.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 17:18
  • Should I use a proper noun instead : "A hat of Sam's"
    – Manar
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 17:49

1 Answer 1


Any book which lays it down as a rule "that 'of' can be only used with inanimate objects, ex : the door of the house, the map of the garden...etc." is simply mistaken. In some cases an "of" form is preferred. For example "The laws of Moses" rather than "Moses's laws" (An example used in The Elements of Style). "The rights of the People" is often used incited of "The People's rights".

But in more cases an "of" form is, if not incorrect, very unusual and not what a native speaker is likely to say.

For example "the computer of the family" is a highly unusual way to refer to ""the family's computer" and indeed I would be inclined to suspect that it meant "the member of the family who calculates, or computes". When "of" can be used to show possession or association is a matter of usage and historical accident. I don't think there is any simple and clear-cut rule which specifies when that form is and when it is not normally used.

"A hat of Sam's" is valid, but unusual. "Sam's hat" or "one of Dam's hats" would be much more usual. "A hat of a boy's" is arguably meaningless, it would surely confuse most hearers.

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