The grammar question of the week came from one of my writing groups. We were talking about this phrase:
- the socialization mechanism [compound noun]
and why we don’t say:
- *socialization’s mechanism (INCORRECT) [possessive with 's]
- the mechanism of socialism (CORRECT, but longer and less elegant) [possessive with of]
It’s a good question! The best answer I can give is that there is a different meaning between the compound noun and the two possessive forms. When you put one noun in front of another, the first noun functions as a modifier — basically, just like an adjective: it describes the last (or, “head”) noun. So, “socialization” is a kind of mechanism, just as we could talk about a useful mechanism or an American mechanism.
These compound nouns are very frequent in academic writing, especially when you have a nominalized noun (or, gerund) in the modifier slot (socialization). Notice that the main noun is the last one — we’re talking about a type of mechanism (not a type of socialization).
Now, possessives … the first thing to notice is that it’s unusual to use the ‘s possessive with nouns that can’t act. We use ‘s with humans, animals (sometimes), companies, institutions, and words like study, research, experiment that stand for the people who did the work. However, these forms are rare in writing — much more common in speech.
Possessives can have several meanings, none of which work for the example above:
- possession (Nigel’s pen)
- source (Smith’s ideas)
- relationships (Ella’s brother/teacher/neighbor/boyfriend, etc.)
- body parts (Bill’s leg)
(There are others). An interesting exception is to describe natural phenomena using a gerund (ing) noun: the earth’s rotation. Rotation here is a property of the earth.
Clearly, in socialization mechanism, socialization is not the possession or source or the mechanism.
The preposition of is very flexible. It can express possession (“the purpose of this paper is …”), but it can also describe (“a description of grammar”, “the mechanism of socialization”). I would say that this structure puts more emphasis on the second noun (grammar / socialization) because English tends to put new and important information late in phrases, clauses, and sentences. This form is also longer, and you don’t want sentences with too many prepositions (the … of … of … of …).
Two notes about compound nouns before I bore you completely …
- Don’t make the modifier plural — words in the “adjective” position can’t be plural in English. So: book covers (not *books covers); student union (not *students union); two-year-old boy (not *two-years-old boy) — and notice the hyphenation here!
- If the noun has a common adjective form with the same meaning, use that as a modifier. So, national flag (not *nation flag); experimental data (not *experiment data). But we say grammar book not grammatical book because it’s a book about grammar, not a book that is grammatical!
Enough! Leave a reply if you have a question or comment!