Writing tip: Inanimate objects should not possess

One rule of grammar that is easily overlooked says that writers should not ascribe possession to inanimate things like buildings. Example: the hospital’s wide double doors. This example isn’t nearly as clumsy as one I caught in an unpublished short story once, where the writer used the phrase the chimney’s smoke, but it still breaks the rule that says inanimate objects cannot possess. Some phrases that form all or part of the subject or predicate are acceptable, however:

He spent a week’s salary on computer games.

Day’s end found the expedition at the river.

They discovered her body at the water’s edge.

Also, certain inanimate objects that have been personified may show possession:

The ship’s rudder was damaged when it ran aground.

The students made a model of the airplane’s fuselage.

Editors are generally more tolerant today about applying this rule, so few would cavil at innocuous expressions like the hospital’s wide double doors. Nevertheless, I would not push my luck by writing expressions such as the chimney’s smoke and the house’s roof, for instance.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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