Today we answer a question from Hameda in Libya. She writes:
I am confused about when I can use the possessive nouns. Is it face mask or face's mask? Is it chicken leg or chicken's leg?
Thank you – Hameda, Libya.
The examples you asked about are two different ways nouns appear together in English. One is a compound noun: “face mask,” that is, it is a type of mask used on the face. These days, the compound noun “face mask” is mostly used in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. But people also wear “face masks” on certain holidays – including on Halloween! They cover all or part of someone’s face as part of a costume.
There are many compound nouns in everyday English.
Listen to this example:
We need to buy cat food for our new pet.
The word “cat” modifies, or changes the meaning of, the noun “food.”
Here is another example:
Bean soup is a good meal in the winter.
In this case, we are talking about that a soup that includes beans.
Apostrophe to show possession
Now let’s look at another way two nouns can appear together. You asked about “chicken leg” and “chicken’s leg.” In the second, you will notice there is an apostrophe -- a small mark before the letter “s.” An apostrophe is used to show possession.
Here is an example:
My dog’s nose is cold.
English speakers generally use this way of showing possession when the first noun is either a living thing or a specific thing. Here is an example that relates to your question.
Doctor, my chicken’s leg was hurt in a fight. Can you help her?
In this example, I am talking about a specific chicken. But, if I am not talking about one specific chicken’s legs, I will use a compound noun to talk about chicken legs in general.
The restaurant’s specialty is roasted chicken legs.
Similarly, if I am talking about dogs in general, I may simply use a compound noun:
Dog noses are always cold.
That is a statement about all dogs, and not just my own dog.
I hope this helps to answer your question, Hamida. And that’s Ask a Teacher for this week.
What question do you have about American English? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m Jill Robbins.
Jill Robbins wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Words in This Story
mask -n. a covering for your face or for part of your face
modify – v. to limit or describe the meaning of (a word or group of words)
apostrophe – n. the punctuation mark ʼ used to show the possessive form of a noun
specific – adj. relating to a particular person or situation
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