My best friend of the moment - 'Essential Grammar in Use' for elementary students by Raymond Murphy - says that 'we normally use -'s for people.'

I stayed at my sister's house. (not the house of my sister).

Then, bellow in the same unit (64) says that 'we use of... for things, places, etc.'

Look at the roof of that building. (not that building's roof)

After that I thought:
Finally!!! I understand the rules for apostrophes!!!

But soon I lost all that naif excitement when I saw other written examples on the internet that were not following those 'rules'.

I've learnt that we can apply apostrophes to time expressions...

one year's pay

and, finally, amazingly enough ... to singular and plural nouns, which means ANY kind of nouns (I deduce uncountable nouns are also part of the possibilities).
This demolishes what is said in the grammar. So, it seems that eventually:

That building's roof -> is valid

So, now I need your help.

1) Can you tell me the rules concerning the apostrophe to show possession in respect to its usage with nouns? Can we really apply to all kind of nouns? e.g. teeth's, vehicle's, Paula's, forest's, manager's, Ireland's, etc

Scotland's worst drivers
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2) Is there a sense that justifies what is written in the grammar: 'we normally use -'s for people'? or it does not make sense at all?

1 Answer 1


'we normally use -'s for people.' Is this justified?

A key adverb in this sentence is normally. Normally doesn't mean always, in fact, it often implies something isn't always true, just usually true.

So, it may be true that I would typically say the version on the left:

My uncle's shirt vs. The shirt of my uncle
My cousin's house vs. The house of my cousin
My neighbor's swimming pool vs. The swimming pool of my neighbor

but that doesn't mean these are necessarily ungrammatical or awkward:

The life of a pilot
The death of my uncle
The wisdom of Solomon
The works of Shakespeare
The enemies of Caesar

That said, I notice that these seem to sound a little more natural when the noun is a little abstract (i.e., life, death, wisdoms, works), as opposed to more tangible nouns (like boat, shoes, dog, or television).

Can we really apply to all kind of nouns? e.g. teeth's, vehicle's, Paula's, forest's, manager's, Ireland's, etc.

Yes, although some of them might sound more awkward than others depending on the context. However, all these seem fine to me:

The teeth's enamel must be carefully treated.
A vehicle's safety features can save your life!
We must develop with respect for a forest's natural flora and fauna.
The manager's reputation is not favorable.
Ireland's lush meadows are a deep shade of Kelly green.

It really depends on the specific words involved, and on the writer's desired tone. Just remember that just about every "rule" in English has a least one exception somewhere.


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