Inanimate objects — possession

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 This example isn’t nearly as clumsy as one I caught in an unpublished short story once, where the writer used the phrase the chimney’s smoke, but it still breaks the rule that says inanimate objects cannot possess.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 like the chimney’s smoke and the house’s roof, for instance.

Paul Thayer