A Word, Please: When are two possessives too many?

Some people will tell you that it’s fine to say “a friend of John” and that it’s also fine to say “John’s friend,” but “a friend of John’s” is another matter.

“The double possessive is redundant and should be avoided in careful speech and formal writing.…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.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If “of” indicates possession and an apostrophe plus S also indicates possession, then there’s no reason to employ both.

In fact, most people who came across such advice would figure that: 1. The advice-giver must know what he’s talking about, and 2. Simple logic supports the claim. And if this advice were published in a scholarly professional journal, that would seal it for most people. Clearly, it must be true that you can’t say “a friend of John’s.”

No doubt, that’s what a lot of readers of the January 1996 edition of the journal “The Practical Lawyer” assumed when they came across an article saying exactly this.

That’s how myths get started. Just because someone has the credentials to get published in a journal or a magazine — or even a book — doesn’t mean he’s qualified to lay down rules.

“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.” In fact, he continues, “Using both the s- and of-genitives together is an English idiom of long and respectable standing.”

You don’t have to think about this for long to see the logic. Imagine, for example, that instead of talking about “a friend of John,” you wanted to talk about a friend of the person you’re speaking to. A standard way to put it is “a friend of yours,” which uses both the possessive “of” and the possessive “yours.”

If opponents of the double possessive were right, you’d have to replace the “yours” with “you,” which would leave you with “a friend of you.” There’s a reason no one uses that construction. It’s unidiomatic, unlike “a friend of yours,” which is standard.

Now imagine you’re talking not about friends, but about the stories they tell. You might, at some point, want to make reference to “a story of Jane’s.” But if you believed that the double possessive was a no-no, you’d be left with “a story of Jane,” which has a different meaning entirely. Similarly, Garner compares “a bone of the dog’s” with “a bone of the dog.” In the latter, it’s completely unclear whether you’re talking about the dog’s dinner or its skeletal structure.

A lot of people readily believe any supposed grammar no-no they hear (hence the widespread myth that you can’t split an infinitive, or end a sentence with a preposition). But when one expert says you can’t do something and another says you can, it’s clear that the first doesn’t have enough authority to issue prohibitions.

Besides, pretty much anyone can claim authority on these matters — and they do. So I usually check multiple sources.

“The double-negative is a perfectly acceptable, perfectly normal form in modern English,” writes “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.”

“The Chicago Manual of Style,” the ultimate authority in the minds of most book editors, allows it as well: “The possessive form may be preceded by ‘of’ where one of several is implied. ‘A friend of Dick’s’ and ‘a friend of his’ are equally acceptable.”

Anyone who tells you different is no friend of mine.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is 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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