Author Topic: The perplexing workings of the double possessive  (Read 6476 times)

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4651
  • Karma: +205/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
The perplexing workings of the double possessive
« on: November 07, 2019, 10:10:52 AM »
For those who still get puzzled by the usage of the double possessive, I’m sharing the analysis I gave an English teacher in Iran four years ago for a big problem that stumped him.

Farhad wrote: “I’ve been thinking about this grammatical question for ages. Please take a look at these three sentences: (1) ‘That was a good idea of Paul’s.’ (2) ‘But there was one small trait of Paul’s that made Rainsford uncomfortable.’ (3) ‘There were two ladies in our class and Paul was a good friend of the ladies.’

“Here’s the question: In Sentences 1 and 2, there is the preposition ‘of’ before Paul’s and in Sentence 3, there is ‘of’ before ‘the ladies,’ too. But why is it that the word ‘Paul’s’ in the first two sentences has an apostrophe-‘s’ but the second use of ‘the ladies’ in Sentence 3 doesn’t have that apostrophe-‘s’? Please tell me the reason as well as the rule.”

My explanation for this puzzler:

Farhad isn’t alone in being baffled by that peculiar, seemingly superfluous way of conveying the idea of possession. The double possessive or double genitive expresses possession of something by using the preposition “of” followed by the noun with an apostrophe-“s” at its tail end, as in “That was a good idea of Paul’s.”


As we learn early in English grammar, affixing that apostrophe-“s” to a noun is the quickest way for English to indicate that a noun is in the possessive case. Even without that apostrophe-“s,” however, simply using “of” before the noun already indicates possession, as in “That was a good idea of Paul.”

Why then do an overkill by using the double possessive? Why not just stick to that simpler single possessive form—“That was a good idea of Paul”—rather than complicate it by affixing the apostrophe-“s” to “Paul”?

The reason is this: native English speakers find the double possessive useful as default usage for unmistakably distinguishing between (a) possession as simple ownership of something, and (b) possession of something as an attribute.

Consider that someone has told you this: “Paul has an oil portrait of my mother.” That’s an ambiguous statement that could mean either (a) that Paul has an oil portrait painting whose subject is the speaker’s mother, or (b) that Paul has an oil portrait painting done by the speaker’s mother. (Let that distinction sink in for a few seconds.)

                                             IMAGE CREDIT: DESKGRAM.NET

Now affix the apostrophe-“s” to “mother”: “Paul has an oil portrait of my mother’s.” This makes it crystal-clear that the speaker’s mother—not Paul—is the painter of the oil portrait. The double negative—the “of” plus the apostrophe-“s” after the noun “mother”—makes it unnecessary for the speaker to clarify the intended sense of the statement.

When a statement of possession doesn’t exhibit such ambiguity, however, we can freely use either the single possessive or the double possessive. Such is the case with Sentence 2 that Farhad presented: “But there was one small trait of Paul that made Rainsford uncomfortable.”

The double-negative construction will have virtually the same sense, if a bit more emphatic: “But there was one small trait of Paul’s that made Rainsford uncomfortable.”

Now to Farhad’s last question: Why wasn’t the apostrophe-“s” used for the possessive in the second clause of Sentence 3? “There were two ladies in our class and Paul was a good friend of the ladies?”

Tricky question. My view is that “of the ladies” in that clause isn’t a double possessive but simply a prepositional phrase modifying the noun “friend.” In any case, appending the apostrophe-“s” to “ladies,” making it a plural noun ending in “s”—“ladies’s”—would make the double possessive not only grammatically ineffectual but very awkward.

It would be prudent to use the single possessive in such instances.

(Next: Is your “were” in the indicative or subjunctive mood?)    November 14, 2019

This essay, 1,169th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the November 7, 2019 print edition of The Manila Times, © 2019 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: November 08, 2019, 09:39:52 AM by Joe Carillo »