Student Stumper 44: Why do people make a word like “today” possessive?

5425591246_77fd8411cf_bQuestion: We can say today’s lesson, so when is it correct to use the possessive with inanimate objects?

Answer: In this case, a learner was already aware that nouns don’t have to refer to a human to be possessive. The big question isn’t really why, but rather when? When is it okay to make nouns possessive?

Back in 2009, I addressed possessive forms in Student Stumper 9 and mentioned the point of human collectivity, which makes it okay to talk about Boston’s love of sports or the committee’s decision. A sports community and a committee refer to groups of humans doing something together. But beyond that, we’re left to find another explanation for today’s lesson.

Sometimes it may not be easy to find the reasons behind a structure. Isn’t it more important to observe what is happening and when? What’s happening is that we’re using the apostrophe to show a relationship. It’s not about ownership but belonging — what we think of as belonging together or connected somehow. There are different lessons on different days, and if we need to, we can match the topics to the days. So which topic is associated with today? What is today’s lesson about? The conclusion is that in American English we use possessive forms with time words to show association: today’s lesson, yesterday’s top story, the year’s graduating class.

Our task now is to identify other cases where ‘s can a relationship other than possession and ownership. Another situation involves measurement of something in relation to time, as in one month’s rent. Can you think of other examples like this?

Greenbaum and Quirk list partitive genitive among the meanings expressed by the genetive case (103). That’s why doctors would talk about the heart’s two ventricles. Students can infer this pattern from more everyday phrases, for instance the bike’s front wheel , the computer’s six USB ports, and the phone’s contents.

Let’s not forget about noun modifiers. In the context of possessive nouns, we need to remind learners that nouns can modify nouns. It’s more concise to talk about the TV remote control rather than the remote control to the TV.  And based on all the patterns mentioned so far, there’s no justification for saying the TV’s remote control, is there?

Can dictionaries help learners identify common noun modifiers? Well, unfortunately, most dictionaries won’t help a learner confirm that TV repairman is standard. They’ll only find “repairman” listed as an entry. Only with luck will TV repairman be used in an example. However, they can extrapolate this finding to other instances: elevator repairman, shoe repairman, etc.

Can you identify other patterns using ‘s with inanimate nouns?

Photo credit: Question Mark? (February 2011) by Tiffany Terry. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.


Greenbaum S. and Quirk R. (1995). A student’s grammar of the English language. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited.

Guide to Grammar and Writing. (2015). Capital Community College Foundation. Retrieved from


2 Comments Add yours

  1. goprofe says:

    This is a really great post! I haven’t (yet) had a student ask me this particular question, but I’ll be prepared. The only other example I could think of is that sometimes money is used with the possessive s, as in: “a penny’s worth of…”. Thanks for writing this thought-provoking article. –Emily at

    1. Hi Emily. Thanks for stopping by. Students ask really great questions. I keep learning because they challenge me to explain things I hadn’t thought much about before. 🙂 Take care.

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