The muscles of the legs of the sprinter

Using possessive forms and adjectival nouns rather than “of the” can make your writing a lot more succinct.

It’s a real-life example. A phrase such as “de spieren van de benen van de sprinter” in Dutch doesn’t come across as being nearly so clumsy as the English title above.

  • possessive => sprinter’s
  • adjectival use of the noun => leg muscles
  • a couple of other real-life ones:
    • the representative of Great Britain => there’s a perfectly good demonym you could use (British)
    • the departments of the medical specialists of the hospital => you can probably think up a couple of ways of making that a word or two shorter
  • When using adjectival nouns, by the way, remember the issue of noun stack order!

I get the feeling that some Dutch people avoid the possessive form in English because they feel it’s too informal in some way, as if it’s an aspect of the spoken language only. Not so!

Prevalence: very high. It’s only a minor issue of fluidity and naturalness – not incorrect and unlikely to affect the meaning. But it occurs in all kinds of texts.
Frequency: moderate. Probably higher than that, actually, because I’m sure we don’t always make that correction – it’s often only a preferential or optional change, after all.
Native: yes. All these issues of long-windedness are things that the natives can also fall foul of at times. Just not quite so often.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

3 thoughts on “The muscles of the legs of the sprinter

  1. Very true. I’ve had native Dutch speakers confidently tell me (a native English speaker) that in English, using the possessive with aninimate objects is WRONG…

    Liked by 1 person

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