“Theo is a friend of Jane’s.” This phrase is unremarkable to most English speakers. However, on closer inspection, the sentence actually contains a somewhat unusual feature. It contains two possessive markers, the preposition of and the enclitic ’s, which might seem redundant or unnecessary. However, this is an instance of a construction called the double genitive or double possessive in English and it consists of the use of the preposition of along with either ’s or an absolute possessive pronoun such as mine or yours. A construction of many names, it is also sometimes referred to as the oblique genitive, postgenitive or appositional of-phrase. Call it what you will, the double genitive has had English grammarians scratching their heads for centuries. How did it enter the language? What are its functions and uses? This article will answer these questions and shed some light on this peculiar feature of the English language.
The term genitive is usually encountered in the study of languages such as German or Russian, where it refers to a grammatical case that is typically used to indicate possession or association. A case is “an inflectional form that indicates the grammatical function of a noun or pronoun”. Modern English has largely abandoned the case system that was an important feature of Old English with the exception of pronouns such as I, me and mine, which are still inflected depending on their function in a sentence. In English, possession is usually shown through the use of the preposition of or the enclitic ’s, with the latter being a holdover from the Old English case system. (Whether these markers constitute a genitive case in their own right is a subject of debate. Some scholars hold that ’s is purely an enclitic rather than a genitive case ending, but we’ll leave that for another day.) The double genitive is unusual in that it uses both these markers to indicate possession instead of either a possessive determiner (my, your, our, etc.) or ’s (Jane’s friend).
The use of the double genitive dates back many centuries and can be found in many seminal works of English literature such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the King James Bible.
And if that any neighebour of mine Will not in church unto my wife incline,
The Monk’s Tale (c.1386-1400)
How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare…
Luke, 15:17-20. KJV (1611)
Discussions of the double genitive began in the 18th century when scholars first embarked on the systematic study of language. One such scholar, grammarian James Buchanan, attempted to proscribe its use.
Of being the sign of the Genitive Case, we cannot put it before a Noun with (’s) for this is making two Genitives.
A Regular English Syntax (1767)
Buchanan’s shunning of the double genitive might have stemmed from 18th-century grammarians’ suspicion of any construction that didn’t exist in Latin, a subject we have discussed in other Language Matters articles.
In any case, Buchanan’s proscription seems to have had little effect, and many of his contemporaries, including 19th-century authors such as Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift, made frequent use of the double genitive.
While the double genitive’s legitimacy has not been called into question in recent times, debates have centred on its origins and uses.
One theory is that the of in double genitive constructions originally had a partitive sense. In grammar, partitive means “a part of a whole” and an example of a partitive phrase would be a little bit of cake. In this sense, a friend of Jonathan’s means “a friend from among Jonathan’s friends”. In time, the partitive sense disappeared and it became possible to apply the construction to single objects, such as that nose of his.1 Another theory, presented by the linguist Anna Granville Hatcher, rejected the partitive explanation, arguing instead that the origins of the double genitive can be traced back to an analogous use of absolute possessive pronouns in Old English.2
Whatever its pedigree, the double genitive is a well-established and idiomatic English construction. As H.W. Fowler wrote in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: “It is not easy to explain why such constructions are idiomatic: one can only assert that they are.”
But What Do You Use It For?
Of course, that is not to say that “anything goes” with regard to the double genitive. The use of the double genitive is governed by a set of rules that native English speakers apply unconsciously. For one, the double genitive is used with an indefinite article or a demonstrative pronoun. So while it is perfectly natural to say a student of Rose’s or this student of Rose’s, it sounds unnatural to say the student of Rose’s. Furthermore, the double genitive can only be used if the possessor is a living being. So one can be a friend of Rachel’s or a friend of the author’s but not a friend of the museum’s.
The double genitive can be used to convey certain subtle differences in meaning. For example, a student of Derrida and a student of Derrida’s can mean different things. A student of Derrida means someone who studies Derrida, whereas a student of Derrida’s has the additional meaning of a student who studied under Derrida.
It has also been argued that the double genitive can be used to express a more active role in a relationship. According to this argument, the phrase I’m a friend of Mary’s indicates that Mary sees you as a friend, while I’m a friend of Mary indicates that you view Mary as a friend.3
It is also quite common to see the double genitive used for rhetorical effect or emphasis.
No son of mine is going to end up in jail!
The double genitive is most frequently used in speech. Although it regularly appears in semiformal writing such as newspapers or magazines, it does have a slightly informal or colloquial ring to it. As a result, some style guides discourage its use in formal writing.4 You might want to consider using alternate constructions in academic writing or in other similarly formal contexts. If you are writing for an organization, it is always best to consult its style guide to see what it has to say on the matter.
While the double genitive is indeed a rather peculiar construction, it is a long-standing and standard feature of the English language, albeit one that is best avoided in formal writing.4 It is governed by a set of rules that native speakers apply unconsciously and it can be used to convey subtle differences of meaning, produce rhetorical effect or add emphasis to what a speaker is saying.
Ibid. pp. 6-7. ↩
Burridge, Kate. Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of the English Language. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 110. ↩
Wilson, Kenneth G. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. New York, Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 153. ↩