A Word, Please: When two possessives make a right

Recently the Los Angeles Times wrote that legendary funnyman Jack Benny "was a particular favorite of Johnny Carson's."

That caught the eye of a reader named Rod, who asked: "When the writer says that Benny was a favorite of Johnny Carson's, doesn't that 'of' make it possessive and, hence, 'Carson's' should be 'Carson'?"

It's a good question.

In English, we form possessives a couple different ways. We can use "of," as in that's the opinion of Joe, a friend of Bob, the car of Jane. This echoes a lot of Latin-based languages that rely on this structure to show possession. But in English, it's more common to use another method: adding an apostrophe and an S to the end of the noun. Joe's opinion, Bob's friend, Jane's car.

They're both established ways of forming a possessive in English. But sometimes you see them combined — that is, a favorite not of Carson but of Carson's, a friend not of Bob but of Bob's. When you think about it, that's illogical. There's no reason to use both methods — to double the possessive. So the double possessive must be wrong, right?

That's a common assumption.

"The double possessive is redundant and should be avoided in careful speech and formal writing," the author of a 1996 piece in a legal journal asserted. "Form the possessive case by adding an 's or by using the preposition 'of.' Just don't get carried away and do both at the same time."

Rod wasn't as quick to jump to conclusions. Instead, he thought it through a little further.

"If I wrote that Benny was a particular favorite of mine, the 'mine' is possessive and seemingly redundant," Rob noted. "I wouldn't, however, write 'of me.'"

In other words, "a friend of mine" seems as illogical as "a favorite of Carson's" because both "mine" and "Carson's" are possessive. But while you can replace the possessive Carson's with Carson in that example, you can't do that with "mine." "A friend of mine" is clearly acceptable, but "a friend of me" sounds ridiculous.

Rod, it turns out, had puzzled out the correct answer to the question: There is no rule. Double possessives, though not necessarily logical, are acceptable — especially when pronouns are involved.

"Some people erroneously stigmatize 'a friend of mine' or 'an acquaintance of John's,' in which both an 'of' and a possessive form appear," writes Bryan Garner in "Garner's Modern American Usage." But in fact, Garner notes, "Using both the 's' and 'of' genitives together is an English idiom of long and respectable standing."

And here's Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "The double-possessive is a perfectly acceptable, perfectly normal form in modern English."

The Chicago Manual of Style also allows the double possessive but restricts its use a bit: "The possessive form may be preceded by 'of' where one of several is implied."

So if Joe has at least a couple of friends, Chicago supports "a friend of Joe's." But when you're talking about just one friend or all his friends, Chicago suggests the nonpossessive Joe: "Friends of Joe attended the ceremony." "The friend of Joe attended the ceremony."

The Associated Press Stylebook adds another restriction for its users: The thing after "of" must be an animate object. So in AP style you can say "a friend of Joe's" but you can't say "a feature of the car's."

General users don't have to worry about what AP and Chicago say. They're style guides whose job is to advise writers working in those styles. Usage guides like Merriam-Webster's aim for a more universal view. And they agree that "a favorite of Carson's" is a valid alternative to "a favorite of Carson."

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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