Poseidon Vineyards vs. Poseidon’s Vineyard.  Recently I was approached with the question of whether there is a linguistic reason to prefer one of these names over the other for a wine label.

Yes … and Poseidon’s Vineyard is the clear winner.

Poseidon Vineyards, with ‘Poseidon’ as modifier to the noun, comes across as ho-hum in comparison.  ‘Poseidon’ in Poseidon Vineyards, doesn’t seem to mean much more than the name at surface value  But as the possessor ‘Poseidon’s’ in Poseidon’s Vineyard, the name suddenly pops.  We think “Wow, what could that mean?  What would a vineyard owned by Poseidon look like, contain, produce”, etc., leading us immediately into pondering the interesting possibilities.  A strongly engaging name, one we’re not likely to forget.

What’s behind these intuitions?

Poseidon’s Vineyard has some internal syntactic (hierarchical) structure that the other version doesn’t, including something called a thematic role for the possessor.  Thematic roles express meaningful relationships between verbs and nouns:  the verb assigns instructions for how the nouns are interpreted.  For example, if you know what English ‘swim’ means, you know that the swimmer is engaging in some vigorous, self-motivated activity.  Similarly, if you know what ‘fall’ means, you know the falling object is following a trajectory not of its own volition.

Possessors like ‘Poseidon’s’ also have a thematic role;  some linguists have even suggested that there may be a hidden verb ‘have’ somewhere in there … in fact, in some languages there’s good evidence for it.

This is why we sense a kind of active-y feeling with the name Poseidon’s Vineyard – all sorts of connotations of activity associated with the possession role bubble up.

A nice example of how our intuitions about names correspond to something that is present not in the words themselves but in the structure.