AN English teacher in Iran, Farhad H., sent me e-mail recently expressing perplexity over
the usage of the double possessive.
He described the problem as follows:
“I have been thinking about this grammatical question for ages. Please take a look at the three sentences below:
“(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 is 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 reply to Farhad:
You are not alone in being baffled by that peculiar and seemingly superfluous construction to convey the idea of possession. It is 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, as in the first sentence you presented, “That was a good idea of Paul’s.”
Affixing that apostrophe-“s” to a noun is, as we all learn in grammar school, the standard way for English to indicate that that nounis in the possessive case. Even without that apostrophe-“s,” however, the preposition “of” before the noun already indicates possession, as in “That was a good idea of Paul.”
Why then the overkill of using 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. For instance, consider that someone has told you 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 anoil portrait painting done by the speaker’s mother.
Not let’s affix the apostrophe-“s” to the noun “mother”: “Paul has an oilportraitof my mother’s.”This time it’s crystal-clear that the speaker’s mother—not Paul—is the painter of the oil portrait. The double negative usage—the “of” plus the apostrophe-“s” after the noun “mother”—makes it unnecessary for the speaker to elaborate on or clarify the intended sense of the statement.
When a statement of possession does not exhibit such ambiguity, however, we can freely use either the single possessive or double possessive. Such is the case with Sentence 2 that you presented: “But there was one small trait of Paul that made Rainsford uncomfortable.”
The double-negative version 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 your 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”?
That’s a 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.” At any rate, appending the apostrophe-“s” to “ladies,” a plural noun that ends in “s,” would make the double possessive not only grammatically ineffectual but awkward.It would beprudentto keep the single possessive form in such instances.
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