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A friend of mine (a native speaker of Japanese) wrote "passenger's seat", which a native speaker of English corrected to "passenger seat".

Onelook.com has entries for the latter but not the former, but I wouldn't be able to explain the grammar of it. Is a noun being used as an adjective?

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    Interestingly enough, because of the way seat begins with an "s", had you heard your friend - instead of reading what he had written - it might have been difficult to tell whether he had said passenger seat or passenger's seat. Conceivably, someone could say this the "wrong" way for a long time before being found out. – J.R. Feb 1 '13 at 18:42
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Nouns frequently modify other nouns in English, and that is the case with passenger seat. It describes a seat that is meant to be used by a passenger.

Passenger’s seat, on the other hand, is the normal way of saying ‘the seat of a passenger’. It means that the seat that in some way belongs to a passenger. In this particular case it is an unlikely thing for anyone to say in that context, which is no doubt why your friend was corrected. It would, however, occur in a sentence like this:

"I'm sorry, sir, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to move. This is another passenger's seat."

  • Imagine you have a gap instead of passenger seat, and whoever wants to hitch a ride, must bring their own seat and install it. Then that seat would be that passenger's seat. – SF. Feb 1 '13 at 18:25
  • @SF.: Possession need not be defined by ownership; it can be defined by occupancy instead (for example, in a classroom: "That's the teacher's desk.") – J.R. Feb 1 '13 at 18:45
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    Curiously, I find passenger seat a perfectly normal usage, but driver seat, and teacher desk sound odd to me. And whereas I'm quite accustomed to an old lady smell, a young man smell seems much more to require the apostrophe (as has been used in both the two cases that Google Books search finds). I've no real idea why. – FumbleFingers Feb 1 '13 at 22:35
  • You're not the only one who prefers teacher's desk. It's very curious how some of these words (like teacher in "teacher's desk") use the possessive form as the norm, while others (like passenger in "passenger seat") get switched to adjectives in context. I thought this curiosity would be worth pointing out in a community of English learners: it's puzzling, even for native speakers, once they take the time to think about it. – J.R. Feb 1 '13 at 23:01
  • Isn’t it just that passenger seat is a particular type of seat in a way that the seat a teacher uses is not? – Barrie England Feb 2 '13 at 7:49
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Employing a noun as a modifier is very common in English, and probably the most productive structure for creating new terms. The modifying and modified nouns may stand in almost any relationship:

  • light bulb - a bulb which produces light
  • light switch - a switch for turning a light on and off
  • gas company - a company which distributes gas
  • safety inspector - one who inspects for safety concens
  • noun phrase - a phrase which functions as a noun
  • sales conference - a conference for salespeople

And a compound of this sort may compound with another noun, as either the modifying or the modified term:

  • gas company safety inspector - a safety inspector for a gas company
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Passenger's seat doesn't show possession although it uses an apostrophe - it shows a genitive case. A possessive case and genitive case can mean the same thing and be used interchangeably when they show possession. However, in this case passenger's seat doesn't mean the passenger owns the seat, but the seat is for the passenger. The same thing applies to children's song; it's not about the children owning the song, but the song being for children. Therefore, it's a genitive case and not a possessive case.

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