Letters to the Editor SpecGram Vol CLXXXIV, No 4 Contents Linguimericks—Book ६३

University News

Possessive -s Relabelled by the International Confederation of Linguistic Nomenclature, Terminology, and Lexicon (IntCoLiNoTeLe)

by Ruthlessly Roving Reporter Miss Deakina Andrea Kirkhamia

The familiar, if idiosyncratic, feature of English—possessive -s—is under unprecedented scrutiny tonight after the findings of a three-year long investigation into the underlying make-up of the famous nominal clitic were published early yesterday morning. The International Confederation of Linguistic Nomenclature, Terminology, and Lexicon (IntCoLiNoTeLe) announced at a press conference in the middle of Woodhouse Moor, Preston, UK, that an analysis of an extensive corpus of possessive -s has demonstrated that a minority of its uses can be clearly associated with the semantic space of possession.

“Take ‘Chomsky’s gall bladder’,” screamed Professor Hermione von Graft de la Rochelle bin Ahmed O’Toole de la Mancha McCotton, PI on the project, as we nestled down on two of the many bean bags of her multicoloured office space in the highest ivory tower of Preston International Neurolinguistic Institute (PINI) sometime last week. “Does Noam possess his gall bladder? Surely not. This use of so-called possessive -s is closer to a part-whole relation.” “What about abstract N2s,” she went on, “such as ‘the bishop’s dream’ or ‘the entire community’s suggestion’? The relationships that obtain here cannot be categorised as prototypically possessive: the bishop is effectively the undergoer of any dream that he (or indeed she) might experience, and the relation between ‘community’ and ‘suggestion’ is primarily one of ‘giving rise to’, not one of possessing.”

We munched biscuits for a moment, looking distractedly around the office while, in the distance, gulls seemed to cry, symbolising, as it were, for the briefest of moments, that fragile connection between the biscuit industry and the end user.

Prof ’Mione (as she likes to be called) wittered on. “Yes of course, of course, of course, the relationship is sometimes clearly possessive: Plato’s pen, or Aristotle’s campervan, but this is a minority of cases and obtains only when the N2 is some kind of commodity. This is a far cry from constructions like ‘God’s existence’ or ‘humanity’s past’ where possession as the characterising factor is ultra-dissmiss-worthy.”

“Given the above,” she mercifully concluded, “the consortium is recommending the abolition of the term ‘possessive -s’ and instead proposing the far more appropriate term ‘mono-segmental post-NP clitic indicating an associate relationship of some kind between the leftward (initial) host NP and the rightward (second) NP, an associative relationship that may, under certain semantic conditions, denote possession but might also denote part-whole relation or other relevant concepts.’ ”

A number of educational organisation have reacted positively to this terminological shift. The spokesperson for the UK’s National Union of Teachers of Writing to Small Kids in Schools, Mick Madsen, was overheard to say that, “It’s high time we stopped poisoning kids’ minds with some rubbish about ‘possessive’ -s and start telling them the truth about this important part of English. Who knows how many lives have been blighted by an improper understanding of the kinds of semantic relationships that -s actually encodes.”

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