Home > Grammar, Oral English > Is it correct to say “the airplane’s wings” in English?

Is it correct to say “the airplane’s wings” in English?

Many of myESLstudents have been confused by whether it’s correct to say something like “the airplane’s wings”.  I tell them them “No, it’s not correct.”  “Why?!” they ask since this is the typical possessive grammatical pattern in English.  The reason that it’s not correct to say “the airplane’s wings” is that in English the meaning of a word is sometimes related to grammatical correctness.   In English, one cannot use the above possessive grammatical construction with nouns that are not alive.  An airplane is not alive.  Therefore, it is not possible to say this.  Only living things, particularly those living things which have a high level of consciousness (such as human beings) may take the <s> possessive in English.

For example, one could perfectly well say something like in example 1:

 

Example 1 – the man’s car (grammatically correct)

 

This is perfectly grammatically correct since a man is an example of a human being, which is a living thing with a high level of consciousness.  However, it would not be possible to use the <s> possessive with a car since a car is not a living thing (see example 2 below).

 

Example 2 – the car’s interior (grammatically incorrect)

 

Actually, this kind of makes sense if you think about it.  A human can have a notion of possession but a non-living thing cannot have such a notion.  A man can think to himself “this is my car”, but a car would not be able to think “this is my interior”.

The influence of grammar on meaning is not something that happens only in English.  There is sometimes such an influence in Mandarin Chinese as well.  For example, in Mandarin, one can say “zhi” only with animals, so while one can say “yi zhi mao” and “yi zhi gou”, one could not say “yi zhi ren” because “ren” is not an animal.

For non-living things, one does not use a possessive construction but one sometimes uses a part-whole grammatical construction (see example 3).

 

Example 3 – the interior of the car (grammatically correct)

 

In example 3, one expresses the fact that the interior is only part of the car with the above construction.  However, for human beings even there is a part-whole relationship, one would still use the <s> possessive as in example 4 below.

 

Example 4 – the man’s heart (grammatically correct)

 

Nevertheless, things are not always so clearcut.  There are nouns which refer to living things which have consciousness, but don’t have fully human consciousness.  A dog is a good example of this.  For such living things, they would normally be treated grammatically like people with respect to the above constructions (see examples 5 and 6).

 

Example 5 – the dog’s tail (grammatically correct)

 

Example 6 – the tail of the dog (grammatically strange)

 

I wouldn’t say that example number 6 is totally wrong, but it’s definitely strange.  Example number 5 sounds much more grammatically acceptable to me as a native speaker of English.

Now, let’s take a living thing which is less human-like than a dog and, as far as I know, has a lower level of consciousness such a fly (see examples 7 and 8).

 

Example 7 – a fly’s wings (grammatically very strange)

 

Example 8 – the wings of a fly (grammatically correct)

 

You can see that a fly is treated grammatically more like a non-living thing such as a car than a human being.

Things are a bit more complicated than this, but I think these are the basic principles underlying these two grammatical constructions.  Now, let’s see if you can apply these principles.  Look at the following phrases.  Only one of them will be definitely correct while the other one will be incorrect or sound strange in English.  Choose the correct example.  The answers are written below.

 

  1. the man’s arm / the arm of the man

 

  1. the dog’s ears /  the ears of the dog

 

  1. gas’s price / the price of gas

 

  1. milk’s cost / the cost of milk

 

 

Answers:

  1. the man’s arm
  2. the dog’s ears
  3. the price of gas
  4. the cost of milk
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Categories: Grammar, Oral English
  1. Anonymous
    June 15, 2011 at 9:17 am

    very useful info

  2. ld
    June 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Hi, I think we can say “the gas price” and “the airplane wings” too. right?

    • June 23, 2011 at 7:18 pm

      Hi,

      “the gas price” isn’t correct, but you could say “gas prices” to refer to the price of gas in general. “the airplane wings” doesn’t sound correct to me.

      Mike

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