I have recently come across the terms subjective genitive and objective genitive, but I don't fully understand them.

From what I have read, an example might be 'the love of God', as in 'the love of God will see you through dark times'. In this phrase, the 'lover' (who would be the subject in a simple sentence like 'God loves you') is 'God' and is preceded by the preposition 'of'. In a language like Latin or Sanskrit, it would be placed in the genitive case. This is the subjective genitive.

Meanwhile, in 'the fear of God', as in 'the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom', the 'feared' (who would be the object in a simple sentence like 'you should fear God') is God and is preceded by the preposition 'of'. This is the objective genitive.

It seems that it is also possible to construct an example where it could be either subjective or objective in isolation. For example, 'the love of your mother', where the mother could be the lover, as in 'the love of your mother will see you through dark times', or the mother could be the loved, as in 'the love of your mother is the deepest emotion'. (Well I think that sounds very contrived.)

That's my research effort, but the problem is, it's not a definition, is it? It's some examples even I don't understand very well and some waffle.

Can anyone define these terms and are there any techniques we can use to distinguish between the subjective and objective genitive?


You've basically got it.

The terms "subjective genitive" and "objective genitive" come from the classical grammatical tradition (as opposed to modern linguistics), and are mostly used when analyzing texts in Latin and Greek.

Traditionally, they're used only when a noun or adjective is derived from a verb (amor "love" < amā- "to love"), and modified by another noun in the genitive. If the genitive noun expresses the subject of the original verb, it's a subjective genitive. If the genitive noun expresses the object of the original verb, it's an objective genitive.

As you point out, they can often only be distinguished by context. And the distinction isn't always a particularly useful one. In English, we usually distinguish them through syntax: "a mother's love" is subjective, "love of one's mother" is objective. Latin doesn't do this as consistently (the objective often comes before the noun and the subjective after, but this is more a trend than a reliable rule), so you need to know the semantics to tell which is which.

  • Thank you for your help, I hope I was able to improve my original question from yesterday – Au101 Apr 4 '20 at 19:54

Fisherman vs. fishmonger

The fisherman is so named because he engages in the act (verb) of fishing - Subjective genitive. The subject of 'fishing' generates the title.

The fishmonger is one who sells fish (noun) - Objective genitive. The object 'fish' generates the title.

  • Is there really a genitive here, though? – Draconis Nov 10 '20 at 17:13
  • How about the fisherman's fishing experience vs. the fishmonger's knife? (I just encountered this concept today. Trying to understand it.) Now I get your example as it has apostrophe S. – Harry Karp Nov 10 '20 at 20:00
  • The idea behind the subjective and objective genitive is, when you turn a verb into a noun, and join another noun to it in the genitive, sometimes the second noun represents the subject of the original verb, and sometimes the object. For example, "God loves them" → "the love of God", but "they fear God" → "the fear of God". It's not something that comes up a lot in English (we turn nouns into verbs more often than verbs into nouns), but mattered a lot to grammarians describing classical languages. – Draconis Nov 10 '20 at 20:16

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