We've been wondering why noun+noun phrases starting with "baby" don't seem to take the possessive form while other "age groups" do:
cf, baby food, baby talk, baby clothes with children's books, men's clothes, etc.Any help will be appreciated.

Last edited {1}
Original Post
I haven't found any discussion of this apparent anomaly in any of my English language references, although it has fascinated me for a long time. Curiously, it's not only babies who get this treatment: pets and domestic animals share it also.

On a given day you can go to the store and buy dog food and a cat collar. Then you can go home and clean the fish tank. You may go out to the rabbit hutch to check on the rabbits. If you live on a farm and own cows you will have a cow shed or cow barn; if you raise horses you'll probably have a horse barn.

The noun "child" seems to have dual membership in this game: A child wears children's clothes, reads children's books, and plays children's games with friends. In the car, on the other hand, the child will ride in a child safety seat. If the parents are divorced, the child may receive child support.

My own theory is that singular noun modifiers such as "baby" and "dog" are used instead of the possessive for animate beings that are under the protection or authority of mature adults (even cats!), whether these animate beings are human or animal. Maybe some other member will have further suggestions about this intriguing feature of English.

Marilyn Martin
Last edited {1}
Very interesting; however we have "How much is that in dog years?" versus "I haven't seen you in donkey's years."
Also, was the elephant that first gave us "elephant tusks" under someone's protection?
There's "the cat's meow" and a flower called "baby's breath"
Perhaps historically the compounds have evolved from an inflected form (i.e., with an apostrophe), and then became noun + noun, and then hyphenated (e.g., dog-day) and finally one word (e.g., birdbrain).
Oh--I should have made it clear that the comments were about only one kind of noun-noun combination. The noun compounds in the question are those in which the second noun represents something intended FOR the first noun. That is, children's books are books FOR children; men's shoes are shoes FOR men; baby clothes are clothes FOR babies, and cat food is food FOR cats. There are myriad other relationships entailed in noun-noun combinations--far too many for us to treat here.

An elephant tusk, for example, is a part of an elephant, just as a table leg is a part of a table. A brick building is one constructed (mainly) of bricks; a brick company is a company that makes or sells bricks. A summer's day/summer day is a day in summer, while a summer dress is one worn in summer, and so on.

Names, idioms and idiomatic expressions such as "catcall," "the cat's meow"; "Ladies' Aid, "lady slipper/lady-slipper/lady's-slipper"; "baby/baby's/babies' breath" (I've heard or seen all forms); "in dog years," and "in donkey's years" are usually beyond the scope of grammar rules.

For compound nouns such as "bathroom," "headdress," and "streetcar," you are correct in saying that they start out as two words, pass through a hyphenated stage, and end up as one word. Quirk et al.* comment, however

""Practice varies in many words and some compounds may even occur in three different forms, 'solid', 'hyphenated', and 'open', eg:

A flower pot/a flower-pot/a flowerpot"

They then state, nevertheless

"But in general there is a progression from open to solid as a given compound becomes established, and hence widely recognized and accepted as a 'permanent' lexical item." (Appendix I.59, p. 1569)

Marilyn Martin

*A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985)
Last edited {1}

Add Reply

×
×
×
×
Link copied to your clipboard.
×