Expression of possession in English

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In this paper we investigate one aspect of the factors that govern the choice in expression of possession in English between the possessive <i>&#8217;s</i> (poss-s), and the <i>of</i>-construction (poss-of). We are particularly interested in the categorization of the poss-s as a clitic or an affix. Since the key evidence in favour of its clitic status is the fact that it can occur at the right edge even when there is postmodification of the possessor as in <i>the man in the car&#8217;s wallet</i>, this is the main focus of our paper. Weight is known to be a factor in the choice between the two constructions. However, the regression analysis we carry out on data from the spoken part of the British National Corpus shows that weight in the form of postmodification of the possessor is a factor in the choice independent of weight in general, and it significantly reduces the odds of poss-s being chosen. We attribute this to structural persistence, a notion extended from Hopper (1991). The approach we take leads us to re-evaluate the categories of affix and clitic and the historical conclusions that have tended to be drawn on the basis of the data. We argue that a model of grammar which includes information about probability looks set to account for the data most appropriately.


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