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Many native English speakers would say that it is "women's clothes". However, when I asked non-native English speakers, they say that "women clothes" would be preferred by them.

In the UK many department stores advertise that they sell women's clothes, men's clothes and children's clothes. However, we need to decide if “women('s)” in “women('s) clothes” is a possessive noun or a nominal premodifier or attributive noun functioning as an adjective, “women”, whose head is “clothes”. A Wikipedia page states that fluent English speakers will regard the use of "women clothes" as solecistic (=grammatically incorrect) in this context.

It seems that, when asked, native English speakers will prefer reading “women's clothes” in a department store while non-native English speakers will prefer “women clothes”. Whilst native English speakers seem to process “women's” as a possessive noun establishing a relationship between “women” and “clothes”, non-native speakers believe that the clitic would be omitted in “women's” as “women” is considered by them a premodifying attributive noun functioning as an adjective – e.g. “clothes which have been designed for women”. There are other constructions which seem to be problematic such as “women's range”, “women's clothing”, “women's clothes magazine”.

The question is: if the clothes have been designed for women and they do not belong to them yet, could we say "women's clothes"? Wouldn't "women clothes" be more suitable here? If not, why?

In "Find out what women's clothes were like in the 19th century", I believe "women's clothes" is the right construction here as those were the clothes worn or used by women in the 19th century. Any thoughts on this?

migrated from linguistics.stackexchange.com Nov 3 '14 at 16:47

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    It seems to me that you are asking an unanswerable question. You say "... we need to decide if “women('s)” in “women('s) clothes” is a possessive noun or" other things. We don't need to decide that. It has already been decided. The English language convention is that we use the plural possessive form in such cases when the 'possessor' is human. We are not totally consistent - I have seen Teachers Room and Ladies Toilets with and without the apostrophe, and most course books have a Teacher's Book. However, the convention is widely followed. It's just one of those things. – tunny Nov 3 '14 at 17:05
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    What is the evidence that non-native English speakers will prefer “women clothes"? – user6951 Nov 3 '14 at 17:57
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The function of the 's "possessive" form of a noun is not only showing possession or belonging, but mostly defining the following noun, note such uses as "a mile's distance", "an hour's wait", "Obama's administration", so women's clothes in a department store is quite justified grammatically.

  • To my (American) ear, "an hour wait" sounds more natural than "an hour's wait". Similarly, "the Carter administration" sounds more natural than "Carter's administration". "A mile's distance" does sound more natural to me than "a mile distance". "A mile" or "a distance of a mile" sounds more natural than "a mile's distance". All of these forms sound grammatically correct (to my American ear). – Jasper Nov 3 '14 at 17:04
  • @Jasper - Washington Times write it "Obama's Administration". – Yellow Sky Nov 3 '14 at 17:37
  • "<Chief Executive>'s Administration" is used. It just does not sound as natural to me as "the <Chief Executive> Administration", especially when the Chief Executive is a president or governor. – Jasper Nov 3 '14 at 17:51
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    "Obama's administration" and "the Obama administration" are both commonly used. I believe Yellow Sky's point was just that the first is valid. Whether it's the most common, I don't know, but it's common enough. – Jay Nov 3 '14 at 19:05
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We had a question here a while ago -- sorry, I can't find it now -- on the meaning of the possessive. The relevant point here is: Possessive CAN mean ownership, as in "Bob's car" means "the car that Bob owns", but it can also indicate many other sorts of association. If I say, "Michigan is MY state", I certainly do not mean that I own the entire state and that every rock and tree and building in it is my personal property. Rather, I mean that it is the state that I live in. Likewise, "Fred's church" probably doesn't mean that he owns the church but simply that he is a member. "Sally's husband" doesn't mean that he is her slave, etc. In this case, "women's clothes" does not mean that the clothes are owned by women, but that they are the sort of clothes that women wear, or that they are clothes that are intended to be sold to women.

It is certainly true that we sometimes use nouns as adjectives. An "automobile factory", for example, is a factory where automobiles are built. But no fluent English speaker says "women clothes". While you could argue that such a use would be consistent with the way other words are used, no one says that, and so to a fluent speaker, it simply sounds wrong.

I don't wish to sound arrogant, but what non-native speakers think about the English language isn't particularly relevant here. Oh, if we were discussing whether the language is consistent or easy to learn or more or less poetic than another language, then the opinion of non-native speakers is probably more valuable than that of native speakers. But when you are discussing what is "correct English", well, no one really cares what non-native speakers think. :-) Just like if I went to France and told them that I think they should rename the "Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile" to the "Lafayette Memorial", I don't think anyone would be much interested in this opinion.

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    Possession actually very rarely actually means ownership! No one blinks if you say "this is my glass" when you're at a friend's house. – curiousdannii Nov 3 '14 at 22:14
  • @curiousdannii Now that you mention it, at the airport I often say, "This is my plane." And the people who work for the airline will agree that, yes indeed, this multi-million dollar piece of equipment is "your plane". – Jay Nov 4 '14 at 14:11
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What I understand from the PO's statement is that he is familiar with the use of possessive form. He also knows what the grammer, native speakers or non-native speakers say in this regard. It also seems that he knows the phrases like women's clothes, men's footwear or policemen's uniforms, etc. are correct.

However, he is a bit confused and asks: If the clothes have been designed for women and they don't belong to them yet, could we say women's clothes? My answer is yes; the possessive form shows that something belongs to somebody but the form can also be used to show that something is connected with somebody. So the phrase "women's clothes" is correct.

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