Double Possessive

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

What are your thoughts on double possessives? For example:

Friends of Sue’s 
Friends of my aunt’s
Friends of his
Friends of her’s
Friends of theirs
Friends of mine

You will find the double possessive question and animated discussions of it on hundreds of language sites all over the web. It remains popular because it has no simple answer.

First let me say that the reader’s fourth example, “friends of her’s,” would never be an option for anyone: the pronoun must be spelled either her or hers.

The “double possessive” is so called because the preposition of, the possessive pronouns hers and theirs, and the ’s all signal possession. The construction is also called “double genitive” and “post genitive.”

The objection to “friends of Sue’s” and “friends of mine” is that the of ought to be sufficient.

Granted, “friends of Sue” is a reasonable option, but no native speaker is likely to say “friends of me.”

The intractability of the question lies in the fact that in some contexts the double possessive is idiomatic. As far as a rule can be stated, it is this:

Generally, what follows the of in a double possessive will be definite and human.

For example, we might say “friends of Sue’s,” but not “friends of the university’s.”

Another guideline is that what precedes the of will usually be indefinite. For example, “a friend of Sue’s.” When the preceding word indicates something definite, the second possessive is dropped: “the best friend of Sue,” “that friend of Sue.” On the other hand, one might say, with some emotion, “That dog of Sue’s is a nuisance.”

Sometimes the double possessive is needed to avoid ambiguity. Compare:
The mansion contains portraits of the owner.
The mansion contains portraits of the owner’s.

In the first sentence, the portraits are of the owner (i.e., they present a likeness of the owner). In the second, the portraits may be of anyone, but they belong to the owner.

The most practical rule for writers is to avoid having two possessives in formal writing. If they occur, rewrite the sentence.

As for informal use, the double possessive is idiomatic in English and has been for a very long time.

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6 Responses to “Double Possessive”

  • D.A.W.

    Here is a fact about “friends of Sue’s” that has been omitted in the above, and this is the cause of great confusion:
    The word “Sue’s” is not a possessive, but rather it is in the genitive case. This is a vestige of the genitive case – one that has nearly vanished in Modern English – and the vestige comes from Anglo-Saxon. This language did have the genitive case, as did Latin, and as do many modern European languages.

    Likewise, English has a vestige of what is called “Subjunctive 2” for other languages, such as German and the Slavic languages. Or is it a vestige of “Subjunctive 1”?

    The vestage of the genitive case is found most often in English personal pronouns: friends of mine, friends of yours, friends of his, friends of hers, friends of ours, friends of theirs. The same applies for singular nouns: “He is a friend of ours.”

    This usage seems to have fallen out of use with interrogatory pronouns: “A friend of whom?” instead of “A friend of whose.” (“He is a friend of whom? That’s unbelievable! He is a rotten scoundrel, and I didn’t think that he had any friends.”)

    Like Maeve said, the use of the genitive case like this does not exist anymore for abstract entities: “A friend of the university”, “A friend of the common folks”, “A friend of Switzerland”, “A friend of the library”.

    Studying foreign languages like German, Polish, and Sanskrit helps you to understand the vestiges of this and that in English, and it also gives us a great appreciation of all of the simplifications in English grammar that have occured since the Norman Conquest and again since the time of Shakespeare.
    D.A.W.

  • D.A.W.

    Wow – permutations! And they sound so similar:
    Friends of my aunt’s; Friends of my aunts’;
    Friend of my aunt’s; Friends of my aunts’.
    ——————————————————
    Aunts of my friend; Aunts of my friends;
    Aunt of my friend; Aunt of my friends;
    or could some of these be written with apostrophes.
    D.A.W.

  • Curtis

    I have a hard time thinking of an instance in which these constructions would sound better than “my friends,” Sue’s friends,” and the like, though I suspect that taking the double possessive out of a larger context just magnifies its awkwardness. It’s a circumlocution, and direct writing is almost always better.

    I concur with Maeve: “If they occur, rewrite the sentence.”

  • venqax

    Wow – permutations! And they sound so similar:
    Friends of my aunt’s; Friends of my aunts’;
    Friend of my aunt’s; Friends of my aunts’.

    Numbers 1 and 2 don’t sound similar, they sound exactly the same. Numbers 2 and 4 are the same. I think Number 4 should be “Friend of my aunts’.”

    Aunts of my friend; Aunts of my friends;
    Aunt of my friend; Aunt of my friends;
    or could some of these be written with apostrophes.

    Yes. “Aunts of my friend’s” or “Aunts of my friends’.” But they are pretty awkward.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Numbers 1 and 2 don’t sound similar, they sound exactly the same.”

    Once again venqax, you do not know enough about mathematics and science to know that “similar to” includes “equal”.
    You always fall into things like these, and then you go shoot your mouth off. I am not even setting logical traps on purpose.

    “Approximately equal to” includes “exactly equal to”, also. There are sets and there are subsets, and any set includes all of its subsets.

    “Friends of my aunts’,” means multiple friends and multiple aunts.
    Very often, multiple sisters have a number of friends in common.

    Also, minor typographical errors should be ignored.
    We have enough of big bloopers of errors to deal with.

    D.A.W.

  • Caine

    Einstein’s contribution to physics was as important as ___________.

    1. Newton’s
    2. that of Newton
    3. that of Newton’s

    Which one do you think is the best option? And please give me detailed explanatin on why the others are not?

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