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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?

4 Answers 4

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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.

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  • Thank you for your help, I hope I was able to improve my original question from yesterday
    – Au101
    Apr 4, 2020 at 19:54
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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.

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    Is there really a genitive here, though?
    – Draconis
    Nov 10, 2020 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, 2020 at 20:00
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    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, 2020 at 20:16
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    Right. One of the ways we get around that in English is to use both genitive formulations -- the apostrophe S and of -- together. So God's love of man is unambiguous, and so is its reverse. Using only of always selects the absolutive NP -- intransitive subject or transitive object. So, the shooting of the hunters is ambiguous; it could mean they got shot or they did the shooting. But Bill's shooting of the hunters is not ambiguous. That's because shoot can be either transitive or intransitive, and that's a feature that crops up with this construction often.
    – jlawler
    Dec 8, 2021 at 16:53
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A good example from Giorgio Agamben, analysing the Greek phrase "the use of the body" (tou somatos chresis) in Aristotle's discussion of slavery.

chresis is a verbal noun, derived from the verb "to use".

Agamben interprets this phrase as ambiguous between the objective and subjective genitive.

  1. Interpreted as an objective genitive, this would mean "the manner in which (or just the fact that) the body [object] is used by a subject [the master, the soul]"
  2. As a subjective genitive, this would imply the body as subject: the body uses itself, or is in use.

Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).

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I agree with others that you are interpreting this correctly. The way I would articulate these concepts is that, when the genitive form of a noun version of a verb (i.e. some sort of action, but in noun form) used to modify another noun, the genitive is "subjective" if the noun being modified would be the subject of said verb, whereas it is "objective" if the noun being modified would be the object of said verb. Basically "subjective/objective" is referring to the relationship of the noun modified by the genitive, to the (verb form of the) action described in the genitive case. This is a bit abstract so I understand how it's hard to wrap your mind around it.

I also think what you've stumbled upon is that some (not all) Indo-European languages have an ambiguity or overlap in meaning between certain forms of genitive, or prepositions that originated in the genitive, and two different scenarios.

In English, some ways of wording statements are ambiguous in this way, but others are not. If you say "the love of your mother" it is ambiguous, like it could mean that your mother is either the subject or object of the love, and for this reason that phrase sounds stilted or unnatural to me as a native speaker. When the context makes it clear (such as "fear of snakes") then such constructions feel natural, as the context makes them unambiguous. And for this reason, if you wanted to talk about snakes feeling fear, you might need to use more specific wording, such as "fear felt by snakes" or "fear experienced by snakes".

If you use the simple possessive, however, with an "'s", it is also unambiguous. I.e. you hear people say "A mother's love" and it always means that the mother is feeling love, not that she is loved. Similarly, you can use the preposition "for" to signal the "objective" role here, i.e. "love for mother", but this doesn't necessarily work in all cases, like you can't say "fear for snakes" because this would mean that you would be afraid that something bad was going to happen to the snakes. For instance I might say "I fear for the snakes that cross this road."

Other Indo-European languages do not necessarily handle these things the same way. For example, in Spanish, you use different prepositions, "a" and "de", and "de" which corresponds to the genitive in Latin, is (I think only) used in the "subjective" sense. Interestingly though, the other preposition you use changes based on the word being used. So for instance, you would have "miedo a las serpientes" = fear of snakes, but you would have "amor por las serpientes" = love of snakes, and "miedo/amor de las serpientes" = the snakes' fear / love (i.e. the snakes are feeling these emotions.)

Russian does something similar, i.e. you have "страх перед змеями"="fear of snakes", here "перед" is a preposition that often translates as "in front of", which makes sense, i.e. you feel fear when you are in front of a snake, whereas you have "любовь к змеям" = "love of snakes". Russian has cases, and interestingly, neither of these constructions take the genitive case, but rather, the instrumental, a case that doesn't really correspond to any case in Latin or Greek, one that tends to be used for a means that brings about some sort of result. In Russian, however, you can also use the genitive case. My Russian is clumsy so maybe a native speaker could step in and explain this but I'm pretty sure that Russian does have some constructions with the genitive that are at least somewhat ambiguous similarly to how English can be with the word "of", and how ancient Greek and Latin can be with the genitive.

What this is getting at, is that this stuff is incredibly idiomatic, and not necessarily handled the same way in languages of the same language family.

There aren't really any techniques to distinguish between these two uses in the cases that they're grammatically ambiguous. In this case, you really need to look at context, and there are, unfortunately, cases where the context is ambiguous. And in these cases, these phrases can amount to bad communication! Remember when reading ancient texts like ones in Greek or Latin that those authors were human just like us, and sometimes made poor word choice leading to ambiguity, just the same way we do! Other times, though, especially in poetry or rhetorical language in speeches, they might deliberately use ambiguity as a literary device. I'd be curious if someone can come up with an example of genitive being used ambiguously as an intentional literary device...I bet such examples exist!

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