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I often get confused when I want to distinguish the nouns as adjectives from possessive nouns.

For examples, these phrasings make me think and unsure.

  1. The syllabus highlights.
  2. Relationship problems
  3. Admission requirements.

Aren't we saying here that in 1. the syllabus has these highlights. 2. This relationship has these problems. 3. the admission has these requirments, which means they should be possessive nouns?

Please tell me how you have learned to distinguish between them easily.

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  1. We speak of possessive or genitive only when a noun (or noun phrase) is marked with the 's clitic (or with a bare apostrophe if the noun or noun phrase ends with ‹s› or ‹z›).

    None of your examples employs this marker, so all of them are what grammarians call attributive nouns: nouns which act like adjectives 'modifying' a following noun.

    (Some writers on grammar also call constructions with of preposition phrases, like NOUN of NOUN, 'genitive'; but that is not relevant here.)

  2. The term possessive is a grammatical term, not a semantic one—that is, not a term which indicates actual "possession". There are other relationships which the possessive may signify. For instance, when the second noun, the one which is not possessive, is derived from a verb, the noun in the possessive case may be the agent, the semantic subject of the action which the second noun designates:

    Columbus' discovery of America ← Columbus discovered America

    In other cases the possessive may mark the patient, the semantic object of the action:

    Germany's defeat by the Allies → Germany was defeated by the Allies

  3. Attributive nouns have an even wider range of reference. A bicycle rider is someone who rides a bicycle, a bicycle store is a store where bicycles are sold, a bicycle tire is a tire for a bicycle, a bicycle race is a race in which the competitors ride bicycles. In your examples:

    • Syllabus highlights are the main points in a syllabus
    • Relationship problems are problems with or concerning a relationship
    • Admission requirements are what is required of those who apply for admission
  • Thank you for the explanation. But I believe I didn't ask my question right. What I meant was when I have two nouns in mind, how can I know if the possessive case apply here or not and thus put the " 's" or not? for instance, student graduation. should I put the " 's" or not? how can I know? – Ghaith Alrestom Aug 26 '15 at 3:00
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    @GhaithAlrestom The genitive acts as a definite determiner, so it's usually restricted to designating specific entities (John's coat, Dickens' novels) rather than kinds or classes of entity (winter coat, romance novels). – StoneyB Aug 26 '15 at 3:25
  • So if you are talking about a particular student's graduation you use the possessive apostrophe. If you speak of it as a graduation for all students, don't use it. – Brian Hitchcock Aug 26 '15 at 7:42

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