LINGUIST List 6.596

Sat 22 Apr 1995

Sum: Possessives

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  1. "WIEDRICK. JACK T", possessives

Message 1: possessives

Date: Wed, 19 Apr 1995 13:22:59 possessives
Subject: possessives

Linguist readers,
(This is a summary of the "this little light of mine" question I
posted on the list about a week or so ago, concerning possessive
constructions of the type _a friend of mine_ vs _my friend_.)
Sorry it has taken me so long to get this summary together, but I
hear that the last guy on here with this topic never put one in at
all, so I guess I'm ahead of HIM, at least.

First of all I would like to thank those that responded with
comments, references, and valuable time in answering my own questions
about their responses. I have thanked each of them individually, but
I will list them here, too, just for the sake of posterity's (little
inside joke, there):
 George Fowler (
 Ellen Contini-Morava (
 Debbie Mandelbaum Seymour (
 Raimund Schiess (
 Don Churma (
 Joyce Tang Boyland (
 Anton Sherwood (
 Deborah Yeager (
 Glenn Ayres (
and especially:
 Stephen Straight (
who was kind enough to indulge me in a week-long exchange of
questions, answers, and insights on the topic, for which I am
extremely grateful.

Next, I will list all of the references for works on this topic that
I have received. I should preface this list by saying that I have
not had the time to check on any of these references to see if they
are attainable or even truly relevant. I felt it was more important
to get out a summary quickly and give any interested parties the same
roadmaps I received than it was to go checking everything myself
first. Here are the references:
 Richard D. Janda. 1980. "On certain constructions of
 English's." BLS 6: 324-36.
 Richard T. Oehrle. 1974. "Some remarks on the painting of
 Rembrandt." CLS 10: 504-16.
 Chris Barker. 1991. _Possessive Descriptions_. UCSD
 dissertation. (This has apparently been bound by Ohio State
 U, and Barker is now employed at the Psych. Dept. of the U of
 Rochester, where he has done more recent, unpublished work on
 the topic.)
Another possible source is:
 John Goldsmith (
who posted a query about this same topic about one year ago, and has
apparently not yet summarized his responses. I have not e-mailed
Goldsmith directly, so interested parties might want to refrain from
bombarding him with questions which he might not have the time or
inclination to answer.

That out of the way, I shall now enter into a brief discussion of the
observations that were made concerning these types of constructions.

 1) For phrases of the type _a friend of John's_ to
receive the final _-s_, they must be recognisably capable of
possession or have the quality of a willing or volitional source for
the noun the _of_ phrase modifies. Therefore, */?_the electricity of
the house's_ is improbable because a house can neither be perceived
as a willing volitional source, nor is it a "good" possessor, because
it lacks the cognizance necessary for prototypical possession.

 2) The _X of N's_ construction makes N more discourse prominent
than the _N's X_ construction. It often acts as a new information
marker, or a highlighter for known information, and for that reason
does not welcome non-discourse-prominent Ns, such as "it". In fact,
"its" tends only to show up attributively, probably because it
resists discourse-prominent areas in the text.

 3) _X of N_ does not always signal possession. Sometimes, it can
act as a simple modifying expression, with near-adjectival meaning.
This distinction is easy to see with Ns that are "good" possessors:
 _I sent her a picture of mine_ =) I own(ed) the picture.
 _I sent her a picture of me_ =) I am the central focus of the
 picture, and the _of me_ describes what kind of picture it is.
With less prototypical possessors, this distinction is often
unnecessary, so that attaching final _-s_ to the end of an N that is
not generally seen as capable of possessing anthropomorphizes that N:
 _a labor of love_ =) It is a kind of labor distinguished by its
 connection with love (eg. as a motivating factor).
 _a labor of love's_ =) Something called "love" performed the
 labor, or owns a copyright for it.

 4) _N's X_ implies definiteness of meaning, so that _my friend_ can
presumably only refer to one known friend. Therefore, one way of
making the N indefinite is to put it in an _X of Ns_ type
construction: _a (this/some/one/etc) friend of mine_ signals that
there is a set of friends and that the one being referred to here
cannot be uniquely identified by the listener until more information
is forthcoming. However, that does not mean that _X of Ns_ is always
indefinite or implicative of a set--it is not. _that well-known house
of John's which you can find facing the marina to the west_ is
perfectly acceptable, and definite in meaning as well. _X of Ns_
constructions occur in this way in contexts where there is some other
determiner in the NP, because, as we all know, determiners are
generally mutually exclusive with each other, ie. *_that well-known
John's house_ is impossible if there is only one John, that is,
unless there is a variety of houses known as "John's houses".

 5) For some dialects of English, _-s_ has different phonological
characteristics when occurring attributively and in _of Ns_
 a) For most speakers, attributive _-s_ is a clitic, in
that it may attach itself to entire NPs, eg. _that dirty rotten
king's house_. For some speakers, ?_the house of that dirty rotten
king's_ is marginal, whereas _the house of the king's_ is acceptable,
implying that it _-s_ is only a nominal suffix for those speakers. I
would like to note that my dialect makes no distinction: _the house
of that dirty rotten neighbor that lives down the street's_ is
acceptable to me, although the sentences _the house of that dirty
rotten neighbor's that lives down the street_ and _the house of
that dirty rotten neighbor's that lives down the street's_ sound
equally fine, with the last one (the one with double marking) being
slightly less acceptable than the other two.
 b) Also for some dialects, attributive _-s_ triggers epenthesis,
while the _-s_ in _of Ns_ does not. (Note: Apparently some
literature refers to this latter as "absolutive _-s_", according to
Stephen Straight, metioned above, but he and I are both in agreement
that it is a poor term, and I will avoid using it here.) That is,
with an N ending in /s/, such as _Angus_, epenthesizing dialects
render attributive _-s_ in _Angus's house_ as [enge^sz haews:
e^=schwa], but do not have *_a house of Angus's's [^.sz.z]_.
Again, however, this is not true for my dialect. I find that I often
cannot decide whether _of Angus's_ or _of Angus's's_ is correct, and
intuitively feel like both seem equally acceptable. Stephen Straight
mentions that he may also have produced utterances like _Angus's's_ ,
but he refers to them as "slips of the tongue", which perhaps implies
that in his dialect, at least, they are less acceptable than the
_Angus's_ forms.

 6) With pronouns, the syntactic and semantic distinctions between
attributive forms (my/your/our/etc) and independent forms
(mine/yours/ours/etc) is significant. Attributive forms can never
occur as their own NPs, and in this way are more article- or
demonstrative-like determiners than quantifiers, which can be their
own NPs. Conversely, independent forms are NPs in their own right
and can never occur attributively. With nouns, though, this
distinction does not exist in the phonological form: in _John's
cow_ and _a cow of John's_ the form of _John's_ is the same
(although, it should be mentioned again that in epenthesizing
dialects, the latter sometimes gets realized in casual speech as ?_a
cow of John's's_ [yes, I have heard it before!], even though
this is marginally acceptable, even to me). If the two (attributive
_-s_ and the other _-s_) are seen as different morphemes, then this
phenomenon may be explained as the integration of two /z/'s
into one, rendering the /z/ of _N's X_ and _X of Ns_ homophonous in
some dialects.

 7) It seems useful to classify attributive _-s_ and the _-s_ in
_of Ns_ as different morphemes. Because of the semantic similarity,
it is assumed that they once derived from the same source
historically. But some problems with this concern some dialectical
and historical forms and uses of the different pronouns. In Middle
and Early Modern English, constructions like _mine house_ and
_thine heart_ appeared as emphatic constructions, but I do not think
that the _-s_ forms, eg. *_ours house_, ever did. In some modern
dialects I have heard about, forms of the type
occur in _of Ns_ constructions only, and never attributively. If the
/n/ in _mine_ and the /z/ in _his_ are come from the same morheme,
then, as Don Churma pointed out, strange allomorphy appears on the
order of:
 POSS = /Z/ ~ /n/ ~ 0
with the middle one only in the 1s non-attributive pronoun and the
last only in 1s, 2s, 3s fem., and 3p attributive pronouns, but not in
3s masc. This seems unlikely to me, and I would suggest that /Z/ and
/N/ possibly had different historical sources, in which each of them
signalled POSS in pronouns, respectively, both attributively and as
independent forms, but then came into the modern distribution pattern
through an admixture.

Well, that's it, I hope. If I haven't done justice to everyone's
ideas, then I am entirely to blame for it. These seven points are a
synthesis of information I received (and debated) from others and my
own personal observations on the topic, but ultimately I take
responsibility for all of it as presented.

Thanks again to everyone who helped.

Jack Wiedrick
Boise State University
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