Question from English4Today student, Vincent in Spain:

I hear a lot of English people talking about the Saxon Genitive – what is it?


Thanks for this question, Vincent. From time to time I’m amazed by the questions asked by our students. In this case, I know Vincent personally. He is one of our advanced English4Today Personal Tutor students and is a very keen and motivated learner. Even so … the Saxon Genitive… where did that come from! I suspect that there is a very old grammar book lurking in Vincent’s bookshelf. I think if you asked 100 native English speakers what this was you would get 95 saying they just didn’t know and 5 saying that it was the name of a 1930’s fictional detective. I have to say that the answer to the question didn’t jump immediately in front of my own eyes.

I’ve often commented in this blog on how English is a living, changing language and this applies to how we name and describe grammar items as well. The Saxon Genitive is really nothing more than a rather old-fashioned name for the Possessive ‘-s‘. Now I’ve answered quite a few questions about forming the possessive in English so I won’t repeat that here although I have placed links at the end of the blog for you to follow if you need more information.

However, if you want to confuse yourself a little about the origins of the Saxon Genitive here is a quote from the Wikipedia entry:

The term “Saxon genitive” is in analogy to the genitive in classical Latin.

Many contend that ’s now functions as a clitic rather than a case ending: it gets separated from its noun in modern usages such as “the King of Spain’s hat”, which in theory is ambiguous between “the hat of the king of Spain” (intended meaning) or “the king of the hat of Spain”. (Older usage had “the king’s hat of Spain” or, rarely, “Spain’s king’s hat”; an example in literature is “The King’s daughter of Noroway” in The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.)

Well, I’m sure you understood that – there’s nothing like a nice simple, clear explanation. And now you’ll no longer have to worry about who owns that Spanish hat … or king’s hat … or King’s daughter.

I think for most of us we can safely live with the fact that the Saxon Genitive is the same as the Possessive ‘-s‘.

Also in the Online English Grammar:

Saxon Genitive : A Detective Story 1
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