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Double Possessives

Hi, everyone! Do we say "a friend of Joe's" or "a friend of Joe"? In spite of the fact that "a friend of Joe's" seems to overwork the notion of possessiveness, that is usually what we say and write. The double possessive construction is sometimes called the "post-genitive" or "of followed by a possessive case or an absolute possessive pronoun" (from the Oxford English Dictionary, which likes to show off). The double possessive has been around since the fifteenth century, and is widely accepted. It's extremely helpful, for instance, in distinguishing between "a picture of my father" (in which we see the old man) and "a picture of my father's" (which he owns). Native speakers will note how much more natural it is to say "He's a fan of hers" than "he's a fan of her." Generally, what follows the "of" in a double possessive will be definite and human, not otherwise, so we would say "a friend of Joe's" but not "a friend of the museum's [museum, instead]." What precedes the "of" is usually indefinite (a friend, not the best friend), unless it's preceded by the demonstratives this or that, as in "this friend of my father's."

Grammar Girl here. Todays lesson involves a question of Cathysor should that be a question of Cathy? By the end of this podcast, youll know which possessive to use. Now, Cathy has been wondering about the so-called double possessive and asks, Which is correctI am a friend of Fred or I am a friend of Freds? She points out that it would sound normal to say, Hes a friend of mine, and "mine" is the possessive. Guest-writer Bonnie Trenga answers. Cathy's right, though you usually use only one possessive at a time. Many purists believe that double possessives should be relegated to informal and semiformal writing, if at all. Nevertheless, double possessives have appeared in good writing for centuries, and most people will find themselves using them on occasion (1). How to Create Possessives You use possessives to indicate who owns what. If Squiggly owns a car , you say, This is Squiggly's car. You use an apostrophe plus an "s" on the end of Squiggly. You can also form a possessive by using the word of, such as The Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. (Of course, you could also say, the United Kingdoms Crown Jewels.) These examples are just normal possessives. Theres not hing double about them. The confusion arises when you use both ways of making possessives at the same time, as in a friend of Freds. Here you have an apostrophe plus an "s" plus an of. Although such a double possessive is allowed, I personally prefer Freds friend over a friend of Freds. Why not just say, "He's Fred's friend"? Incorrect Possessives Nevertheless, to help us learn whats right, lets look at some possessives and double possessives that native speakers wouldn't use. It definitely sounds odd to say, a car of Squiggly. On the other hand, you could say, a car of Squiggly's, assuming he has lots of cars and youre pointing out one of them. However, a car of Squiggly's doesnt sound as natural to me as one of Squiggly's cars. On the other hand, its perfectly normal to say, the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom or the United Kingdoms Crown Jewels, but it turns out that its ungrammatical to say, the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdoms. Heres a clear -cut rule that helps explain this: When youre talking about inanimate objectsobjects that arent alive, such as the United Kingdomyou cant use a double possessive (2). According to The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, for a double possessive to be legal, the object of the preposition of has to be definite and human. In other words, its fine to say, a friend of my uncles but not a friend of the museums. You have to say, a friend of the museum.However, according to this rule, it would be OK to say, He's a friend of a friends, but wev e all heard the common expression a friend of a friend. I guess double possessives dont always work. That should make some sticklers happy. Avoiding Double Possessives We could clear this all up by stating that we should just always avoid double possessives. Perhaps that would make life easier. Instead of a friend of my uncles or a car of Squiggly's, maybe we should always say, my uncles friend or Squigglys car. For t he most part, you cant go wrong if you follow this advice. You should probably avoid the double possessive anyway if youre using formal English. Useful Double Possessives There are, however, some cases when a double possessive is very useful to help clarify your meaning. For example, if you attempt to avoid the double possessive and say something like "This is Marie's portrait," you end up with an ambiguous sentence that could mean you are looking at a portrait of Marie or a portrait that is owned by Marie. You can fix the problem by

substituting one of two sentences depending on what you mean. If you mean Marie owns the portrait, then the double possessive makes it clear: "This is a portrait of Marie's." On the other hand, if it is a lovely rendering of Marie, "This is a portrait of Marie" will serve you well. Another time when you might need to use a double possessive is if you want to use a possessive pronoun, such as theirs, hers, or "mine," as Cathy noted in her initial question. In fact, its impossible to avoid using a double possessive in cases such as She is a relative of his. If you dont like double possessives, you could reword such sentences by saying, She is his relative, She is one of his relatives, or, simply, They are related. Double possessives might also be necessary if youre using a that, those, this, or these in your possessive (3). For example, the hat of Aardvarks sounds a bit odd to me, whereas that hat of Aardvarks sounds a lot more natural. In Summary That question of Cathys was pretty tricky. Or, rather, I might prefer to say, Cathys question was pretty tricky. The double possessive does have legitimate uses, but you might want to avoid the redundant possessive in formal writing and perhaps use only one possessive at a time if it sounds natural.
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References

1. Wilson, K.G. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Columbia University Press, 1993, http://www.bartleby.com/68/99/1999.html (accessed August 16, 2008). 2. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowlers Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 227. 3. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, pp. p. 624-25.

Doubly Possessive

Possessives help determine ownership. The apostrophe s is the proper way to punctuate a possessive noun. At first glance, the issue of possessives may appear easy. The car is Nancys, and its Nancys car, are two sentences that say Nancy owns the car. However, what happens in the case of a double possessive? Is it the car of Nancy, or the car of Nancys? This is a common problem that plagues writers and editors alike. In order to find a solution, Ill consider what some grammar experts have to say on the matter, then give my own suggestions. th What the Experts Say: Chicago Manual of Style: 15 Edition refers to double possessives as Possessive with of, in section 7.29: The possessive form may be preceded by of whereone of several is implied. A friend of Dicks and a friend of his are equally acceptable. See also 5.52.

a cousin of Jims a favorite phrase of Professor Deams (page 285) Section 5.52 addresses double possessives and personal pronouns. It says: that letter of Sheilas becomes that letter of hers. Such a construction is unobjectionable with names, and mandatory with pronouns. Note that none of the possessive personal pronouns are spelled with an apostrophe. (page 161) Grammar Girl had quite a bit to say about the subject online. Her article, Double Possessives says: The confusion arises when you use both ways of making possessives at the same time, as in a friend of Freds. Here you have an apostrophe plus an s, plus an of. Although such a double possessive is allowed, I personally prefer Freds friend over a friend of Freds. Why not just say, Hes Freds friend? There are, however, some cases when a double possessive is very useful to help clarify your meaning. For example, if you attempt to avoid the double possessive and say something like This is Maries portrait, you end up with an ambiguous sentence that could mean you are looking at a portrait of Marie or a portrait that is owned by Marie. You can fix the problem by substituting one of two sentences depending on what you mean. If you mean Marie owns the portrait, then the double possessive makes it clear: This is a portrait of Maries. On th e other hand, if it is a lovely rendering of Marie, This is a portrait of Marie will serve you well. Kays Opinion: I think its most practical to say, its Nancys car. The car of Nancy sounds too stuffy for everyday language. Actually, the car of Nancy makes me think of my Spanish lessons. Other languages use of to create their possessive phrases (el carro de Nancy), which is just one more reason English is so hard to learn. I agree with Grammar Girl; there are exceptions where ambiguity requires an adjustment. If the owned object has multiple ways of being interpreted, then double possessives are helpful. Some Examples: Correct: Any friend of Nancys is a friend of mine. Any friend of Nancy is a friend of mine. Ambiguous: Nancys photograph was stunning. Better: The photograph of Nancy was stunning. The photograph, taken by Nancy, was stunning. Incorrect: Any friend of Nancys is a friend of mines. The car of Nancys was awesome.