Scientific English as a Foreign Language
Answers to Lesson of May 29, 1998

The possessive, or genitive, is usually formed in English by adding " 's " to the end of a noun, e.g. John's house. If a singular noun ends in " s ", then also add " 's", as in "a praying mantis's head". If the plural noun already ends in "s", then just add an apostrophe, e.g. the mantis' heads or the Smiths' house. If it is a compound noun, e.g. Dan and Sally, then we say "Dan and Sally's house", not "Dan's and Sally's house." If there are sucessive levels of possession, it looks like this--"Dan and Sally's house's plumbing." But the multiple " 's " would *look funny* in a publication.

We tend not to write "the motor's inductance." Usually we write "the inductance of the motor." The difference is whether the noun is a person or a thing. Therefore, the more common usage is to write "my sister's cat", and "the oscillation of the swing", instead of "the cat of my sister", and "the swing's oscillations." These latter are not wrong, they just *sound funny* to a native speaker. Animals are generally treated as people, e.g. "the cat's leg", or "my sister's cat's leg". See quotation below.

Thank goodness there's a little flexibility. If the rule was that you always had to use "of" with things, then one would have phrases such as "the brim of the hat of the captain of the steamboat of the Donau River." My natural tendency would be to say "the brim of the Donau River steamboat captain's hat." The latter is much shorter and less awkward than the former. I used "Donau River steamboat captain" as a collective noun. (By the way, German is great for collective nouns--one can say "Donau-Dampfschiffahrts-Kapitaens-Muetzen-Schild" for the entire phrase.)

What would you do to the following phrases to make them more readable? Or would you leave them as they are?

1. the damping of the tip of the cantilever of the atomic force microscope
     the damping of the atomic force microscope cantilever's tip

2. the noise in Liz's pendulum OK
3. the resistance of the probe OK
4. the resume of the scientist
    the scientist's resume

5. the brain cells of the mouse
    OK, or the mouse's brain cells

6. the amplitude of the pattern of interference of two actuators of ultrasound
    the amplitude of the interference pattern of two ultrasonic actuators

"The removal of the male praying mantis's head actually improved its sexual performance. This was because the subesophageal ganglion (near the head) normally inhibits the copulatory movement of the abdomen. Once the subesophageal ganglion has been removed, by decapitating the insect, it will copulate with almost anything."

-K.D. Roeder, Biological Bulletin, October 1935

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Created 28 May 1998, by Nancy Burnham and Fred Hutson.