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Compared to my natural language (Portuguese) it is very strange to use apostrophes to denote ownership, like:

Peter's book.

In Portuguese, I would say "the book of Peter".

Also, “inversions” like Peter girlfriend mother friend (I am not even sure how to write it), if every subject in this phrase owns something, it would be "Peter's girlfriend's mother's friend" that I know is wrong but at least would follow common sense. In Portuguese, I would have to say it like "the friend of the mother of Peter girlfriend".

Is there a rule of thumb that can be used, at least for the first case?

Peter's book

That tells me it is better to use the apostrophe version instead of the "of" version?

My main problem is when you are dealing with things that are not objects. A book is an object, but what about feelings like "Peter's feelings" or character traits "Peter's shyness" and other things that are not palpable things?

Is there a case where not using the apostrophe version is incorrect or weird?

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    "Peter's girlfriend's mother's friend" isn't wrong, it's exactly correct and the most natural way to refer to someone who is a friend of the mother of the girlfriend of Peter. Commented May 11, 2023 at 14:59
  • What???? I thought I was delirious thinking that it could be true! Fantastic. Thanks.
    – Duck
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 15:02

2 Answers 2

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Peter's book, Peter's feelings, both are better than using the 'of' formulation. But the hit theatre production running in London is correctly called The Book of Mormon. And it's correctly the Gospel Of St Peter. Another example of a case where you may need to use 'of' is any name ending in 's'. For example the sausages belonging to Mavis could be Mavis's sausages but that sounds a bit weird, so you would try to find a way round it, like 'Mavis ate her sausages with great delight'. There are special rules for plural nouns which I am sure you know, eg the doors of the houses would be 'the houses' doors'. This works also for a family called Brown who are collectively the Browns, so the possessive is 'the Browns' car. A fairly simple rule applies: if it sounds wrong or ugly, or is ambiguous unless you can actually see the apostrophe written down, try to avoid this formulation, especially in speech. Good English is about clarity and ease of flow - good manners towards the people you are trying to communicate with.

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    The book of is a special case. And I don't agree that there is anything odd about Mavis's sausages: it only becames awkward when you're writing it, and you have to decide which arbitrary set of rules to follow. And if ambiguity were a problem, the language would have altered to eliminate it in the centuries before most people had learnt the technology called writing. (Yes, you can concoct ambiguous examples, but they are vanishingly rare in real life).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 15:53
  • Mavis's sausages starts us down the slippery slope of … should it be Mavis' sausages? - a debate I'm not going to participate in ;) See grammarist.com/punctuation/… Commented May 11, 2023 at 17:50
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There is not a rule, but there is a tendency to use 's more with animate possessors, and with possessors which are things associated with daily human life, and least with abstracts.

As an example, I looked at the numbers of instances with a selection of words in the iWeb corpus, as follows:

child's             111449
man's               59481
dog's               32291
council's           20180
ship's              14168
car's               14132
computer's          12214
town's              10031
cow's               8686
house's             2982
tree's              2781
fish's              2338
field's             1750
train's             1196
factory's           651
sin's               553
idea's              335
desert's            236
speech's            154

(I actually searched for [word]'s NOUN, to eliminate instances of 's representing is, and of people wrongly using 's for plurals).

There is no special significance to the words I chose: I tried to get a range of animacy, concreteness, and relevance to human lives.

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