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TWTS: An oft overlooked double possessive

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Note: This episode of That's What They Say originally aired on January 26, 2020.

We get a lot of questions about the redundancy in "irregardless." However, a listener named Graham Liddell recently asked us about an instance of redundancy that we don't hear many people making a fuss about:

"Why is it 'a friend of his' and not 'a friend of him'? Why 'a favorite movie of hers' and not simply 'a favorite movie of her'? 'A bad habit of Steve's' and not 'a bad habit of Steve'?"

This question points to an irregularity in our language: the double possessive.

Think about the construction, "Bob's friend." The only marker of possession is the apostrophe in "Bob's."

However, "of" can also mark possession. That gives us two more possibilities: "a friend of Bob" or "a friend of Bob's." Some language guides say the latter version with the apostrophe is only appropriate in informal contexts, but you can find it in formal contexts too.

So, is it wrong to use doubly-marked possession?

"I find it hard to say it's wrong, because there are constructions where it sounds very wrong not to," says English Professor Anne Curzan.

Think about "a friend of mine." In this construction "of" and "mine" both mark possession. "Mine" is the possessive form of "me," but most of us wouldn't say, "a friend of me." Similarly, "a bicycle of Sarah's" sounds more idiomatic than "a bicycle of Sarah."

Sometimes it sounds very wrong to use a double possessive. For instance, you'd probably say "the name of the ship" and not "the name of the ship's."

Basically, sometimes double possessives work and sometimes they don't. It's just another one of those quirky irregularities to love about our language.

Do you have a language question for That's What They Say? Send it to language@michiganpublic.org.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.