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Review of  Morphosyntactic Categories and the Expression of Possession

Reviewer: Sebastian Sulger
Book Title: Morphosyntactic Categories and the Expression of Possession
Book Author: Kersti Börjars David Denison Alan K. Scott
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 24.3673

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The book ''Morphosyntactic Categories and the Expression of Possession'' collects 11 papers that were originally presented at a workshop which took place in Manchester in April 2009. The theme of the workshop, the realization of the concept of ''possession'' (across languages, with a focus on English) through various morphosyntactic constructions, has long been a challenge to linguistic theories. The papers all investigate aspects of the morphosyntactic marking of possession from the perspective of a variety of linguistic theories. Since in all of the surveyed languages there are different constructions available for realizing possession, particular attention is paid to the distribution of the relevant constructions, using corpus data and statistical analysis.


In the introduction, Kersti Börjars, David Denison and Alan Scott set the stage for the volume by touching on the historical and theoretical implications of the English ''s''-genitive. They mention its usage across different constructions, and further note that it has received much attention in the literature, as it provides a window on a range of issues that influence the way we think about the architecture of grammar. They sketch the development of the marker as well as its theoretical treatments over time - as regards the latter, they draw attention to the literature on clitics vs. phrasal (edge) affixes. Moreover, the introduction mentions that most languages referred to in the volume have more than one way of expressing possession, noting in particular West Flemish and Urdu.

The first paper in the volume, by Cynthia L. Allen, ''Dealing with postmodified possessors in early English: Split and group genitives'', takes a diachronic look at two post-modified possessor constructions in the development of written English: the group genitive construction (1) and the split genitive construction (2).

(1) the king of France's daughter

(2) the king's daughter of France

Allen documents the rise of the group genitive in the late Middle English period and its sudden favouring over the split genitive near the start of the Early Modern English period. For the period where both strategies were available, she provides evidence for the claim that the complexity of the involved possessor phrases plays a role: it turns out that the group genitive has always been used predominantly where possessor phrases were maximally simple and involved only the possessor N premodified by a determiner or a possessive and postmodified by the simplest possible PP. The split genitive, on the other hand, was found where possessor phrases had more premodifying material than just a determiner (titles, adjectives, etc.). Allen ties this to processing factors: the group genitive was favoured when the possessor was short and simple and thus did not require much effort to create or parse the resulting structure.

The second paper, ''Variation in the form and function of the possessive morpheme in Late Middle and Early Modern English'' by Teo Juvonen, supplements the preceding paper as it surveys the use of different strategies in the morphological marking of the possessive in a corpus of Late Middle and Early Modern English. The morphological strategies discussed by Juvonen are: ''s''-ending as in (3), ''s''-less ending as in (4) and separated genitive as in (5).

(3) the Kynges brother

(4) wyth onye of my maister councell.

(5) to yower worly worschyppe and herte ys desyre.

The paper focuses on the different possessive encoding strategies, and how they were used across the different genres. Juvonen affirms that the group genitive had become the dominant form by the end of the 15th century (as discussed by Allen); he gives the split genitive example in (6), and mentions that by the latter half of the 17th century there seems to be increasing uncertainty about the status of the ''of''-phrase: does it modify the possessor ''a Bishops'' or the possessum ''son''?

(6) it was Gerelius a Bishops son of Suedeland

Based on this observation, Juvonen suggests that the group genitive replaced the split genitive because of grammaticalization and semantic bleaching of the preposition ''of'': he claims that this is what caused the ''of''-phrase to be linked more closely to its head, thus disabling the split genitive.

The third paper, ''The great regression: Genitive variability in Late Modern English news texts'' by Benedikt Szmrecsanyi, again looks at possessive encoding strategies in English, this time focusing on the ''s''-genitive/''of''-genitive alternation in Late Modern English news texts as in (7) vs. (8). The paper documents the collapse in the frequency of the ''s''-genitive in the early 19th century and its subsequent recovery, aiming to explain the resulting v-shaped pattern.

(7) the president's speech

(8) the speech of the president

Szmrecsanyi views any subtle changes in the conditioning factors as evidence of a change in the genitive choice grammar of English, showing why the slump in the ''s''-genitive frequencies around the first half of the 19th century was so much more severe than expected: this has to do with a change in the status of the factor ''possessor animacy''. While the sheer input frequencies of human possessors dropped, the animacy constraint (due to which human/animate possessors favour the ''s''-genitive) was relaxed - an actual change in the grammar of genitive choice speeding up the decrease in ''s''-genitives.

Szmrecsanyi notes that dropping the selectional restriction concerning animacy can be seen as a sign of grammaticalization, while the increasing sensitivity of the ''s''-genitive towards the factors ''possessor thematicity'' and ''possessum length'' can be seen as a development towards a freer ''choice of items according to communicative intents'' (Lehmann 1995: 164) and thus as degrammaticalization. The fact that the ''s''-genitive increasingly attracted ownership relations can be explained using the ''paradigmatic integrity'' parameter, again by Lehmann (1995): lexical-semantic features are added to the ''s''-genitive, again indicating degrammaticalization.

The fourth paper, by Catherine O'Connor, Joan Maling and Barbora Skarabela titled ''Nominal categories and the expression of possession: A cross-linguistic study of probabilistic tendencies and categorical constraints,'' presents a cross-linguistic study of the Monolexemic Possessor Construction (MLP). They compare the stochastic patterns of prenominal possessives in English to the MLP found in a variety of languages (Germanic, Slavic, Romance). The choice of a prenominal possessive over a postnominal one in English correlates strongly with the features animacy, weight and discourse status, but is not categorical in nature. This is not the case with the MLP; in this construction, the possessor occurs immediately left to the possessum, and the possessor may not be longer than a single word, as in the Czech example in (9). If the full name of the possessor is to be expressed, the full phrase adnominal genitive has to be used as in (9c).

(9) a.
Milan-ova kniha
Milan-POSS.ADJ book
'Milan's book'

Kunder-ova kniha
Kundera-POSS.ADJ book
'Kundera's book'

*Koupila jsem Milan-ovu Kunder-ovu knih-u
'I bought Milan Kundera's book.'

Koupila jsem knih-u Milan-a Kunder-y
buy.PAST.1SG.FEM be.PRES.1SG book-ACC Milan-GEN Kundera-GEN
'I bought (a/the) book of Milan Kundera.'

Evidence from Czech, Russian, Icelandic, German, etc. is adduced showing that optimal weight, discourse status and (less strictly) animacy are all grammaticalized in the MLP. With respect to discourse status, a cross-linguistically valid accessibility hierarchy emerges as in (10). If a language has an MLP, it will allow it with pronouns; if a language allows it with e.g. kinship terms, it will also allow it with any element occurring to the left of the kinship terms in (10).

(10) Monolexemic Possessor Accessibility Hierarchy:
Pronoun >> Proper Noun >> Kinship Term >> Common Noun
Most accessible <-----------------------> Least accessible

The scale in (10) implies that in a given context, pragmatic decisions must take place to resolve the possessor in an MLP; in particular, the question arises how a possessor is resolved if there are e.g. multiple pronouns available. To address this question, the paper further includes a discussion of whether the categorical restriction is at work in terms of pragmatic communicative decisions, or whether it just constitutes a frozen remnant of the stochastic tendencies observed e.g. in English; by citing elicitation experiments with native speakers of Czech, the authors confirm that the categorical restrictions reflect an active discourse pragmatic requirement.

In ''Expression of possession in English: The significance of the right edge,'' Kersti Börjars, David Denison, Grzegorz Krajewski and Alan Scott return to the topic of ''s''-genitive/''of''-genitive alternation in English. The focus of the paper is on the categorization of the ''s''-genitive as a clitic or an affix. The authors are especially interested in the right edge criterion, which is key evidence for the ''s''-genitive's status as a clitic: the item's ability to occur at the right edge even in cases where the possessor is postmodified, as in (11).

(11) the man in the car's wallet

The authors discuss two new variables, length of premodifying sequence as well as length of postmodifying sequence, to see whether it makes a difference where the weight of the possessor is located, before or after the head. It turns out that the effect of premodification is weaker than that of postmodification, so that the latter decreases the odds of the ''s''-genitive more strongly (unfortunately, the data the authors work with is too sparse to examine any further the effects of the actual length of the postmodification). The so-called split possessive is argued to be a strategy for avoiding standard ''s''-genitives where the possessor contains postmodification, and the data shows a clear correlation between the presence of a split and the length of the postmodification.

The sixth paper, ''A cognitive analysis of ‘John's hat’'' by Richard A. Hudson, presents a cognitive analysis of the English ''s''-genitive, couched within Hudson's Word Grammar framework (Hudson, 2010). A string such as ''John's hat'' spawns two different syntactic analyses in the mind of a speaker of English. Under the first analysis, the morpheme ''{z}'' behaves like a suffix and is a direct descendant of the Old English inflected genitive case; here, the string ''John's'' behaves like a single word which doubles in function as a determiner. Under the second analysis, the same morpheme ''{z}'' behaves like a clitic giving rise to the group genitive.

Hudson claims that each of these analyses has advantages and disadvantages for a learner of English. The suffix analysis involves a straightforward morphology/syntax mapping, but the possessor phrase must receive a complex analysis, doubling in syntactic classification as a (possessive) pronoun and a noun (common or proper). Hudson acknowledges that this analysis seems more intuitive in cases where we have simple (e.g., proper noun/one word) possessors, like ''John's hat''. When the possessor is complex, and the ''s''-genitive is not adjacent to the possessor phrase head, the group genitive is the only analysis available. Here, Hudson suggests a simple mapping at the syntax-semantics and morphology-syntax interfaces, at the cost of the special morphology involving a clitic.

Hudson further discusses the competition for the ''s''-genitive and the ''of''-genitive, and argues that the variation is due to a processing effect: people prefer the ''s''-genitive with short possessors, since they put the ''landmark'' relation first. If the distance between the head of the possessor and the possessum gets too large, processing benefits dictate the ''of''-genitive.

John Payne's paper ''The oblique genitive in English'' deals with the construction in (12), the ''oblique genitive'' (OG), also referred to as the ''double genitive''. Payne notes that the construction has previously been analysed as a variant of the ''s''-genitive, as a variant of the ''of''-genitive, and an equivalent of the partitive.

(12) a friend of the Prime Minister's

Payne compares the OG to all of these correspondents in turn. In short, the OG is much more semantically restricted than the ''s''-genitive and involves a quite different pattern in the selection of determiners; the ''of''-genitive does not quite stand in complementary distribution with the OG either, and patterns differently with respect to weight; and finally, the partitive always involves anti-uniqueness, while the OG does not always do so.

The choice between the OG and the ''s''-genitive is argued to be largely a matter of information structure: in the ''s''-genitive, the referent is identified by first processing the genitive NP, which provides an ''anchor'' (Fraurud 1990) for the identification, while in the OG, the function of that genitive NP anchor is reduced, and processing happens largely by contextual anchors.

In the eighth paper, ''The marker of the English ‘Group Genitive’ is a special clitic, not an inflection,'' Stephen R. Anderson develops a formal account of the possessive marker ‘s’ in English. Anderson establishes the feature [POSS] (realized by the ''s''-genitive) as a feature which is marked on the phrasal level (in his view: on a possessor DP residing in the specifier position of a higher DP), then discusses two different accounts of phrasal properties. One is the account that he is in favour of, namely to treat the group genitive as a ''special clitic'' (Zwicky 1977). Under this account, rules modify the phonological makeup of phrases by introducing affix-like phonological content (i.e. clitics or particles) at a certain point within the phrase. The other account, called ''EDGE inflection'', as put forward by e.g. Nevis (1986) and Zwicky (1987), treats the group genitive as a special inflectional pattern applied at the edges of words.

Anderson mentions that both accounts produce the right facts for the English Group Genitive, but the theoretical implications and mechanisms are different: One involves a clitic as a single marker of the [POSS] feature at the edge of the phrase, the other realizes the feature (through intermediate constituents) on a single grammatical word, as an affix. He demonstrates that there are cases where one analysis is favourable over the other. Anderson establishes three diagnostics for distinguishing clitics from edge inflection: selection of certain parts of speech is more likely to apply to affixes; lexical gaps as well as idiosyncratic shapes are more likely to occur with affixes.

Phonologically, Anderson argues that the possessive ''/z/'' is adjoined to the final syllable (instead of being incorporated into it). Here, possessive ''/z/'' is no different from plural ''/z/'', which is also adjoined. This way, Anderson can nicely account for the data in (13) vs. (14), by saying that two instances of adjoined ''/z/'' are collapsed into one in (13), while in (14) we only have a single instance of adjoined ''/z/''.

(13) anyone who likes kids' (*kids's) ideas

(14) the fuzz's old cars; at Buzz's

Liliane Haegeman discusses two kinds of prenominal possessor patterns in a dialect of Dutch, in ''Two prenominal possessors in West Flemish''. The paper shows that, while several other works propose a unitary account for the two patterns, they show different syntactic features and thus cannot have an identical syntax. The first pattern is shown in (15), referred to by Haegeman as the doubling construction (DC); the second pattern, called the ''sen construction'' (SC), is shown in (16). In (15), the DP possessor ''Valère'' is doubled by the possessive pronoun ''zenen'', and the latter can also occur on its own; when this is the case, as in (17), the properties of the pronoun are the same as in the DC.

(Valère) zen-en hoed
(Valère) his-MSG hat
'Valère's hat'

Valère sen hoed
Valère sen hoed
'Valère's hat'

zen-en hoed
his-MSG hat
'his hat'

The possessive pronoun displays double agreement, matching both the possessor (person, gender in the singular, number) as well as the possessum (gender, number). In the SC, ''sen'' does not agree with either. The author presents abundant evidence against a unified approach to the two constructions, including the agreement patterns, reciprocal possessors, and adjacency effects.

In another descriptive paper, titled ''A Mozart sonata and the ‘Palme murder’: The structure and uses of proper-name compounds in Swedish'', Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm describes Swedish nominal compounds where the first nominal constitutes a personal proper name (proper name compounds; PNC). These compounds are (almost) synonymous with other possessive nominals. Koptjevskaja-Tamm asks what influences the choice between the constructions, but also discusses the similarities and differences between PNCs and common noun compounds (CNCs).

Koptjevskaja-Tamm provides a detailed discussion of the uses of PNCs: PNCs may be used as proper names as well as common nouns; they compete with possessive NPs for naming streets, churches and other entities. The author notes that the heaviness of the proper noun might play a role, so that longer proper nouns appear mostly with genitives, while shorter ones appear mostly within PNCs. The connection to processing seems obvious (see also the papers by Allen, Hudson, and Payne), but as the exceptions to the rule are numerous, Koptjevskaja-Tamm notes that this must be a tendency only. The difference between identifying particular instances (possessive NPs) and typified instances (PNCs) is general and productive in Swedish (and other Germanic languages, one might add).

Koptjevskaja-Tamm approaches two theoretical questions at the end of the paper: 1) whether the issue of (non-) referentiality is relevant for the occurrence of proper names within compounds, and 2) whether the distinction between instance specification and type specification is relevant for choosing between PNCs and the corresponding ''s''-genitives. In answering these questions, she concludes that instead of treating PNCs as a single construction, it might be more fruitful to split the construction apart into several distinct patterns.

The last paper, ''Possessive clitics and ‘ezafe’ in Urdu'' by Tina Bögel and Miriam Butt, considers the ''ezafe'' (18), a loan construction from Persian. The paper discusses its formal properties and syntactic distribution, and provides an analysis couched within Lexical-Functional Grammar (LFG).

sahib=e takht
owner.M.SG=Ez throne.M.SG
'the owner of the throne'

The authors mention that the ''ezafe'' construction has been discussed by others (e.g., Samvelian 2007), some of whom identify it as a clitic, others as an affix and a part of nominal morphology. In Persian as well as in Urdu, the ''ezafe'' construction displays a head-initial pattern, and modifiers appear to the right, which is exceptional in both languages. Moreover, the ''ezafe'' always forms a unit prosodically with the head noun to its left, while at the same time licensing modifiers to the right; syntactic function and prosodic realization thus differ. Bögel and Butt discuss the account of Samvelian (2007), who argues that the Persian ''ezafe'' is a phrasal affix. Unlike Anderson (this volume, 2005), who refers to phrasal affixes as ''special clitics'', Samvelian analyses ''ezafe'' as part of word-level morphology, and not as introduced post-lexically; Samvelian's main evidence comes from other phrasal affixes which seem to be in complementary distribution with the ''ezafe'', and thus must be generated on the same level (by the Haplology Criterion).

Bögel and Butt challenge Samvelian's account and argue that different groups of phrasal affixes can belong to different classes, and that the Haplology Criterion must not hold in the morphological component, but may apply in the phonological/prosodic part of the grammar. They argue that the Urdu ''ezafe'' behaves like a clitic in many respects: e.g., it is separable from its host using parentheticals, it can take scope over noun conjunction, it does not display morphophonological idiosyncrasies. It also has some non-clitic-like properties; for example, it displays a high degree of lexical selection, only occurring with nouns of Persian origin as its head. The authors conclude that Urdu ''ezafe'' should be analysed as a clitic (a phrasal affix). Their LFG analysis involves separate modules of grammar, taking into account its mis-alignment: while it is a functional head selecting a modifier to its right, prosodically it attaches to the word on its left.


Shortcomings of the volume as a whole are of a formal nature. Some examples in some of the papers lack glosses, which I am not sure is an error on the authors' or on the publisher's part. The numbering of the examples is also off in some cases. In addition, some cited references are not included in the bibliography at the end of the volume (I have found at least 4 such instances across all the papers).

There is also some variation in the volume regarding the terminology of clitics. Anderson uses the term ''special clitic'' for the English group genitive in the sense coined by Zwicky (1977). Anderson in his earlier work used the term ''phrasal affix'' (Anderson 1992) which turns out to be equivalent to Zwicky's ''special clitic''. Now, however, he uses Zwicky's term, which is why the term ''phrasal affixes'' does not feature in his paper in this volume. Bögel & Butt in their paper, referring to Anderson's work, use his earlier terminology and talk about ''phrasal affixes''.

The paper by Börjars et al. may in part provide the answer for such issues. Anderson as well as Bögel and Butt in their papers acknowledge that the markers they analyse (English group genitive and Urdu ''ezafe'') display mixed properties of affixes and clitics, but both papers analyse the markers as clitics. A dichotomy ''affix'' vs. ''clitic'' may turn out to be an oversimplification that does not do justice to the mixed properties of such items, and Börjars et al. instead suggest a scale of grammatical categories with a ''clitic end'' and an ''affix end''. While this is an interesting proposal, the exact makeup of the proposed scale is left for further research.

The volume provides an interesting perspective on possessive alternations, which is the key theme of several papers. Throughout the papers, the features animacy, weight and topicality/discourse status crop up, and clear correlations are established between these features and the choice of a particular possessive encoding strategy. The question arises whether these tendencies form part of the grammar, or whether they belong in a separate component capturing language use; O'Connor et al. answer this by looking at languages where those factors are implicated in categorical distinctions between separate constructions, and thus clearly form part of the grammar. It can therefore be concluded that the statistical patterns displayed e.g. by English actually form part of the grammar and need to be represented in a model of grammar. A question I would add is in how far the features animacy, weight and topicality hold up in a cross-linguistic study of possessive patterns, or whether there are more features that involve categorical distinctions and/or statistical preferences in other languages.

All in all, the volume is essential reading for any linguist interested in the morphosyntactic realization of possession. While the overall focus is clearly on English, this is not necessarily a negative: it enables the volume to approach the various issues in English from several distinct angles, while maintaining a manageable set of data. Empirical-statistical, cognitive and theoretical-explanatory accounts add up to render a rather complete picture of the English possessive constructions from a synchronic as well as from a diachronic perspective. In addition, descriptive papers team up to provide insights into other languages' possessive structures as well.


Anderson, Stephen R. 1992. A-Morphous Morphology. Cambridge: CUP.

Anderson, Stephen R. 2005. Aspects of the Theory of Clitics. Oxford: OUP.

Fraurud, Kari. 1990. Definiteness and the processing of noun phrases in natural discourse. Journal of Semantics 7: 395-433.

Hudson, Richard. 2010. Word Grammar and Cognition. Cambridge: CUP.

Lehmann, Christian. 1995. Thoughts on Grammaticalization. Munich: Lincom.

Nevis, Joel A. 1986. Finnish Particle Clitics and General Clitic Theory [Working Papers in Linguistics 33]. Columbus OH: Dept. of Linguistics, The Ohio State University.

Samvelian, Pollet. 2007. A (phrasal) affix analysis of the Persian Ezafe. Journal of Linguistics 43: 605-645.

Zwicky, Arnold M. 1977. On Clitics. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Zwicky, Arnold M. 1987. Suppressing the Z's. Journal of Linguistics 23: 133-148.
Sebastian Sulger is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Linguistics, University of Konstanz. He is interested in case, argument structure, and grammar interfaces (morphology-syntax, syntax-semantics), as well as areas within computational linguistics. He has published papers on possession in Hindi/Urdu, nominal argument structure, and copula constructions. His interests in computational linguistics include grammar development, treebanking, and multiword expressions.