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Double possessive

Q From Frances Pack: You recently wrote ‘a friend of Pope’s’. What? Do I not remember correctly that Pope’s is already possessive — so the use of of before it makes a double possessive? That was drummed into my ears when I was a freshman in high school in Latin I class. Curious — because I sometimes slip and write it that way — then have to go back and “correct” it. Is this no longer the rule?

A It never was. You’ve been led into a misunderstanding, as some grammarians of the eighteenth century were, by trying to apply the rules of Latin to English, where they don’t fit. It must be said that disputes about it are unrelated to effective communication, since nobody would ever fail to understand “a friend of Pope’s”.

You can immediately see that the construction is valid in English by replacing the noun with a pronoun. You wouldn’t say or write “a friend of you” or “a friend of me” — that is, not if you wanted to be thought capable of composing acceptable standard English. If “a friend of mine” is good English, why not “a friend of Pope’s”?

The technical name for this construction is double genitive or double possessive (it has also been called the appositional of-phrase, and the post-genitive). It’s of great age — examples are to be found in writings of the fourteenth century; by the eighteenth century it was common and unremarkable. This instance, picked pretty much at random but showing both forms of the idiom, is from Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield: “An aunt of my father’s, and consequently a great-aunt of mine, of whom I shall have more to relate by and by, was the principal magnate of our family.”

In particular, grammarians say a double possessive is essential to avoid giving the wrong meaning when a word indicating ownership is placed after of, as “a bone of the dog’s”. The extra possessive is required because “a bone of the dog” means, not a bone in the possession of the dog, but one inside the dog. “A picture of Jane” means an image of Jane, whereas “a picture of Jane’s” is a picture of any sort that happens to be owned by Jane.

But there are some limitations. The phrase has to be indefinite — “a friend of Pope’s” is OK, but if I meant a particular one I would have had to write “the friend of Pope” or “Pope’s friend”; also, “a friend of ours” is idiomatic, but not “the friends of ours”, which would have to recast as “our friends”. And the second noun must be human, or at least animate, and also definite — so you can’t say “a friend of the British Library’s” or “a lover of the furniture’s”.

What’s fascinating about all this, and one reason why I’ve gone into so much detail, is that the rules are precise and strict and are understood and followed by every speaker of idiomatic English, even though they’re not usually taught in school. Fluent speakers don’t know they know them and couldn’t explain them, say to someone learning the language, but they know immediately when they’ve been broken. Native speakers pick up the rules for using such idioms by example and experience and only suffer confusion when these real-life rules conflict with the ones that grammarians of an earlier period would have had us believe were correct.

If you feel these rules to be arbitrary and unreasonable, the only response I can make is that it’s an idiom and that’s just the way things are. Robert Burchfield says at the end of his entry on it in the Third Edition of Fowler, “It is not easy to explain why such constructions are idiomatic: one can only assert that they are.”

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Page created 12 Nov 2005