Author Topic: Clarifying how the double possessive in English works  (Read 9335 times)

Joe Carillo

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Clarifying how the double possessive in English works
« on: March 03, 2022, 06:52:46 AM »
All of us surely already know that in English, possession of something can be denoted by simply adding an apostrophe and an “s” to most singular nouns, as in “the candidate’s persona,” “that woman’s adequacy,” and “our nation’s destiny.” And when a singular noun already ends in “s,” it’s often enough to just add the apostrophe after the “s,” as in “Venus’ allure,” “the Philippines’ possessions,” and “Daenerys’ mystique.”

Most plural nouns already end in “s,” so we only need to add the apostrophe after the “s,” as in “the boys’ dormitory,” “the witches’ brew,” and “the lions’ den.” For nouns that have irregular plural forms, all we need is for “s” to follow the apostrophe to create their possessive form, as in “women’s journal,” “children’s playground,” and “my brethren’s needs.”

Having done a quick review of the very basics of the English possessives, let’s now clarify a baffling aspect of conveying the idea of possession. It’s the double possessive or what linguists call the double genitive, in which possession of something is expressed by the preposition “of” followed by the noun with an apostrophe-“s” at its tail end.     
An English teacher in Iran, Farhad H., called my attention to his problem with the double possessive in 2015. Here’s how he described it in an e-mail:
“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.’

“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 and the rule.”

I told Farhad that he wasn’t alone in being baffled by the double possessive, which at first sight seems superfluous in conveying possession. We all learned in grammar school to affix the apostrophe-“s” to a noun to mark it as in the possessive case. Even without that apostrophe-“s,” the preposition “of” before the noun already indicates possession, as in “That was a good idea of Paul.” Why then the overkill with the double possessive? Why not just stick to that simpler single possessive form—“That was a good idea of Paul”—than complicate it by affixing the apostrophe-“s” to “Paul”?

The reason is that native English speakers have found the double possessive useful as default usage for clearly distinguishing between (a) possession as simple ownership of something, and (b) possession of something as an attribute. Consider having been told this: “Paul has an oil portrait of my mother.” This is an ambiguous statement that could either mean (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.

Not let’s add the apostrophe-“s” to “mother”: “Paul has an oil portrait of my mother’s.” This time it’s crystal-clear that the speaker’s mother—not Paul—was the oil portait’s painter. Clearly, the double possessive—the “of” plus the apostrophe-“s” after “mother”—makes it unnecessary for the speaker to clarify the statement’s intended sense.

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

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

This essay, 2087th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the March 3, 2022 Internet edition of The Manila Times, ©2022 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this essay in my column in The Manila Times:
Clarifying how the double possessive in English works

(Next week: How to construct negative “used to” sentences)         March 10, 2022

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« Last Edit: March 03, 2022, 07:03:12 AM by Joe Carillo »