Subjective and objective genitive

The difference between the subjective and objective genitive is important for languages, like Greek and Latin, in which the genitive or possessive case has multiple functions. But although little attention is paid to it in a language like English which has lost its nominal cases, this distinction is highly important also in it. The objective genitive answers the question ‘of what?’ For example, ‘the child’ in ‘the experience of the child‘, if taken as an objective genitive, answers the question, ‘the experience of what?’. Here the child is the object of the experience. The subjective genitive, on the other hand, answers the question ‘whose?’, ‘belonging to whom?’ Hence, ‘the child’ in ‘the experience of the child‘, if taken as a subjective genitive, answers the question, ‘experience of whom?’, ‘whose experience?’ Here the child is the subject of the experience.

A related distinction concerns what may be termed weak and strong ambiguity in the genitive. Weak ambiguity may be seen in a phrase like ‘the color of the sky’. Here there is little distinction between the objective and subjective senses of the genitive. ‘The color of what‘ seems to cover both. Presumably this is because the sky may be thought (rightly or wrongly) to exercise little subjectivity (pace William Turner). In contrast, in ‘the experience of the child’, the difference between the objective and subjective senses of the genitive is strong.  Objectively there are a great many different possible experiences of a child.  Subjectively, too, experience belonging to a child varies over a great range.  As a result, definition in a phrase like ‘the experience of the child’ is much more demanding than it appears to be in a phrase like ‘the color of the sky’. The ambiguity of the genitive is stronger because the subjective aspect is marked.

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