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I'll have a double

A slow day, even for a Monday, so let’s liven it up with double possession.* You can even call it the double genitive if you like to imagine that English is like Latin.

In the double possessive, you indicate possession with both the possessive form of a noun or pronoun and the preposition of. You talk about a friend of mine; if you said a friend of me, it would (or should) strike you as odd.

Don’t worry about the logic of this; it is an idiomatic construction, and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that it goes back “before Chaucer’s time.”

It also serves in some cases to eliminate an ambiguity, as Merriam-Webster’s explains: If you were to write Jane’s picture, you could be understood to mean a picture of Jane or a picture belonging to Jane. The double possessive makes clear that you mean the latter.

This construction is not a problem for native speakers, who grasp the idiom. If someone misguidedly made you sensitive to it, you can safely cross it off the list of things to worry about.

 

*Or, if you missed it over the weekend, you could have a look at the “Maxims for editors” post.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:12 PM | | Comments (6)
        

Comments

Regarding "Jane's picture", if you were to change it to "her picture" you can see where the double possessive clarifies things quite a bit.

"Her picture" means either a picture of her or a picture belonging to her (or perhaps both). Using the double possessive clarifies it to ownership (a picture of hers) while single possessive denotes the subject of the photo (a picture of her).

Whether she owns a photo of herself is still a mystery.

Many a philosopher is a student of Kant, but any student of Kant's would have been dead for over a century.

"a friend of me" is odd of course. But "a picture of mine" and a "a picture of me" are both fine, and distinct.

@John Cowan

I think I would have to argue that "Kant" is not the same in your two examples. The first stands for Kant's body of work (or philosophy, etc.), and the second stands for the person.

The syntactic use of the double possessive is simple and elegant: it allows you to use another determiner to fine tune your meaning. "My friend" is as far as you can go, with "friend of mine" you can say "that friend of mine", "an old friend of mine" (which is not the same as "my old friend"), "several friends of mine" and so on.

Also "a friend of Bill" isn't necessarily "Bill's friend"...

A friend of Bill W., in particular, is most unlikely to be a friend of Bill W.'s.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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