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A Word, Please: Double possessives demonstrate the power of ‘of’

Last week in this column we talked about some difficult possessives. This week, Bill in Williamsport, Pa., builds on that discussion with a question about a possessive issue we didn’t cover: “Joe is a friend of John’s.”

To Bill, this structure seems redundant and awkward because it uses both “of” and an apostrophe to show possession. He prefers the more direct variation “Joe is John’s friend.”

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Is he right? Is “a friend of John’s” redundant? In a word, yes. So if this were math or logic, “a friend of John’s” would be nonsense. But language isn’t always mathematical or logical, and when it’s not, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

“A friend of John’s” is something called a double possessive or a double genitive. The word “double” captures the problem Bill laid out: it uses two methods to show possession where only one is needed. “Of” creates possessives. So does an apostrophe plus an S.

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The power of “of” to make a noun possessive is found in one of its many definitions. “Of,” according to Merriam-Webster’s, is “used as a function word to indicate belonging or a possessive relationship.”

Most often, that comes up in forms like “the king of England,” in which the idea that England possesses the king isn’t really the main emphasis, but there’s a subtle form of ownership at play anyway. As a result, we can use “the desk of Renee” to mean “Renee’s desk” — if we don’t mind the obvious awkwardness.

These “of” possessive forms are somewhat archaic — an echo of romance languages that use “de,” meaning “of,” or similar to show possession. It’s like how “el auto de Robert” means “Robert’s car” in Spanish.

But it’s not completely archaic. It has lived on in certain special circumstances. For example, you’re more likely to say “the leg of the table” than “the table’s leg.” You might prefer “the subject of the lecture” to “the lecture’s subject.”

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There’s no formula for knowing when “of” is best used for a possessive, but we can see some patterns. The “of” possessive is more common with inanimate things: “the arm of the chair.”

With living things, the apostrophe-plus-S possessive is more common. Try the “of” possessive with living things and you’ll see what I mean: “The arm of Steve” is a weird alternative to “Steve’s arm.”

We’re also more likely to use the “of” possessive when the thing possessed is connected to or part of the other thing: the hood of the car, the rim of the glass, the horns of the bull.

For most other possessives, though, we use the plain-old apostrophe-plus-S: Joe’s friend, Karen’s attitude, the dog’s bone.

The double possessive is unusual because it uses both. Most of the time, the redundancy adds nothing. But the double possessive is nonetheless acceptable.

“It is an idiomatic construction of longstanding in English — going back before Chaucer’s time — and should be of little interest except to learners of the language, because, as far as we know, it gives native speakers no trouble whatsoever,” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Sometime in the 18th century, grammarians started to object to the double possessive. A few prohibited it. But as far as researchers can tell, these grammarians were basing their rules on little more than their own tastes.

Worse, it seems they overlooked an important fact: Sometimes the double possessive is the best option.

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Take “a friend of mine.” The pronoun “mine” is possessive. So, this example is syntactically identical to “a friend of John’s.” Because that’s a double possessive, “John’s” can be replaced with non-possessive “John,” giving us a simple solution: “a friend of John.”

Now try that with “a friend of mine.” Replacing the possessive “mine” with its corresponding pronoun, you get “a friend of me.” That’s not standard usage.

If you don’t like the logical shortcomings of the double possessive, you can usually avoid it. But not always. Either way, you can’t condemn it outright.

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