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Summary Details

Query:   Double Possessives
Author:  Tong Zhimin
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Morphology

Summary:   Dear LINGUIST Readers,

This is a summary of responses to my query about the double possessive
posted a long time ago. I am extremely sorry it took me so long to get
the summary available.

First of all I wish to express once again my gratitude to all those who
responded to my posting:
Allan Wechsler
Barbara Zurer Pearson
Bernard Comrie
Bradley Harris (Email no longer applicable)
Chad D Nilep
Charles Belair
Colin Whiteley
Daniel Loehr
Debra Ziegeler
Douglas Dee
E. Bashir
Earl Herrick
George Huttar
Jakob Dempsey (Email no longer applicable)
Karen Davis
Lance Eccles
Laura Georgia Knudsen
Laurence Urdang
Lisa Matthewson maggie@MIT.EDU
Laurence Urdang
M. Lynne Roecklein
Michael Horlick
Neil J. Squillante
Patrick Juola
Paul H. Listen
Pipe Martin
Ronald Ross
Stephen Rowland
Steven Schaufele
Tara L. Narcross
Terry Nadasdi

This is the first time I have ever posted a question on the Linguist
Network, and was greatly encouraged by these warm-hearted people who
answered my questions with a great deal of patience. The following is
the summary. I think I have tried to properly represent every
respondent's views, but I am also aware that my summary fails to cover
all the points that were mentioned in the correspondence. So I also
wish to make apologies to those whose responses I fail to do justice

Briefly the topic is as follows. There are two sentences:
(A) My father was a close friend of Albert Einstein.
(B) My father was a close friend of Albert Einstein's.
(A) is the version that I came across in my teaching. My questions are:
1. Are both of them acceptable? 2. If yes, is there any difference?

Altogether 30 people (all being native speakers of English) responded
to my query, and some of them later exchanged more mail with me and
developed our discussion. My summary is based mainly on the first
round of replies that I received, but follow-up responses are also

Of the 30 respondents, 29 say that both are acceptable. One of these
29 replies actually is a summary of responses to a similar question
posted about two years ago, which contains a relevant paragraph
implying that both are possible, but with difference. Just one
respondent indicates that only (B) is OK.

Among the 29, 10 see no difference between the two sentences. 3 prefer (A).
3 prefer (B).

13 differentiate the two constructions from various perspectives. One
angle is style. 4 respondents say (B) is more colloquial,or less
formal, or more used in speaking. Interestingly 1 person holds a
totally contrary opinion: (B) is more formal. More interestingly,
later a linguist argued strongly that definitely (B) is more formal
and those who say (B) is more colloquial are undoubtedly wrong.

3 respondents distinguish the two sentences from a diachronic perspective.
They think that (B) is more traditional and is used less and less.

5 people approach the difference in terms of focus. 4 of them believe
that (A) emphasizes "father", implying "my father liked Einstein";
whereas (B) stresses "Einstein", implying "Einstein liked my
father". Another respondent feels that (A) is completely
neutral. Sentence (B) may imply that "you are talking about a set of
Einstein's friends, and your father was one of them. Somehow, the
focus is drawn more to Einstein, and hence the sentence is less

Most replies to my posting did more than answer my questions. They
went further and deeper to discuss the use of the possessive in
English. Many respondents agree that this area is rather complicated
(and interesting) and even native speakers sometimes get
confused. Nevertheless, agreement has been reached on certain points.

Two factors determine the use (or non-use) of the double possessive:
(1) Whether the possessor is a noun or pronoun; (2) Whether the
possessor and the possessed are animate or inanimate. First observe
the following two groups of sentences. ("Yes" indicates possible; "no"
impossible; "?" uncertain and probably impossible.)

(1) No This is a book of me.
Yes This is a book of mine.
No My father was a close friend of him.
Yes My father was a close friend of his.
(2) Yes This is a wheel of my car.
No This is a wheel of my car's.
? This is a book of my father.
Yes This is a book of my father's.
Yes My father was a close friend of Einstein.
Yes My father was a close friend of Einstein's.

Conclusions might be: 1. When the possessor is a pronoun, it is always
genitive, regardless of animation. In other words, the double
possessive is used. 2. When the possessor is a noun, the case becomes
complex. If both the possessor and the possessed are inanimate, only
the double possessive is possible. If the possessor is animate while
the possessed is inanimate, it's very unlikely to not use the double
possessive. If the possessor and the possessed are both animate, both
constructions are possible. And this is the area where our discussion
originated. These conclusions are based on the responses that I

Sorry again for my failure to reply to you promptly. I just hope this
failure has not led to my loss of chance to get your help when I have
more questions to ask.

Sincerely yours,

Tong Zhimin (formerly

LL Issue: 10.1239
Date Posted: 23-Aug-1999
Original Query: Read original query


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