November 23, 2006

A friend of mine's pet bear

Ben Zimmer, following up on the first of my recent postings on possessives in English, writes about the phrase in the header, which comes from the 11/22/06 "Mark Trail" cartoon, as critiqued on the Comics Curmudgeon site.  A poster on that site refers to "the semantic nightmare of a sentence coming out Mark's mouth in panel three": "You stole a friend of mine's pet bear!"

Actually, I can't see anything to object to in this sentence, unless you object in general to possessives of NPs (like a friend of mine) that don't end in their head nouns, though these have been around for centuries and are not hard to find in real life.

To see how we get to a friend of mine's pet bear I'll have to describe with some care how the determinative possessives of English NPs work.  The details are important.

There are two special cases and then one very big generalization.

Special case 1: (definite) personal pronouns.  If the NP is one of six (definite) "personal pronouns" (note: this is a technical term) -- 1sg (nominative I), 2 (nominative you), 3sg fem (nominative she), 3sg masc (nominative he), 1pl (nominative we), 3pl (nominative they) -- its determinative possessive form is suppletive, not a simple concatenation of morphemes: respectively, my, your, her, his, our, their.

There are several other items usually labeled as possessives which go by the big generalization, rather than having their possessives stipulated, for instance:

generic one: One should never count one's chickens before they're hatched.

anaphoric indefinite one: The big cat's tail is shorter than the small one's.

compound indefinite pronouns: We're collecting everybody's opinions.

Special case 2: NPs without a possessive.

There are several classes of NPs that simply lack a possessive.  (Geoff Pullum and I talked about a number of these in a 1996 LSA paper, the handout for which is available on my website.)  Some are single words:

expletive there: *There's being no food in the refrigerator upsets me.

headless modifiers: demonstratives: This cat's tail is short. *That's is long.

headless modifiers: quantifiers: We interviewed many subjects.  *We took down each's opinion.

headless modifiers: independent possessives: Your cat's tail is short. *Mine's is long.

(Notice that in the last case we end up with unacceptable mine's.)

and some are longer phrases --

"nominal gerunds" (possessive + gerund): Your walking me home really pleases me. *Your walking me home's really pleasing me is a surprise to everyone.

infinitival clauses: For you to walk me home really pleases me. *For you to walk me home's really pleasing me is a surprise to everyone.

(These lists are merely illustrative, not exhaustive.)

The big generalization: Z
.  Otherwise, the possessive form of a NP x has a Z suffix on the last word w of x

I've said this with some care.  In particular, I did NOT say that the possessive form of x uses the possessive form of its last word w, since that wouldn't provide possessives for NPs that end in words that are not nouns (like the friend I was telling you about or everyone I know), since such words of course do not have possessive forms.

And now we make a prediction about the determinative possessive corresponding to the pet bear of a friend of mine (using an alternative expression of possession which has the preposition of): it should just follow the big generalization: a friend of mine's pet bear, with Z suffixed to the last word, mine, of the possessor phrase a friend of mine.  That's where we started.

Just to wrap up this description, here's how Z is realized:

Realization of Z.  The possessive Z is suppressed if w itself ends in a Z suffix (the birds' wings).  Otherwise, possessive Z has the same phonology as plural Z and 3sg present Z:

the basic variant is z (bird's, Chicago's);

for a word ending in a sibilant, epenthesize schwa between it and the z (Max's, judge's);

otherwise, for a word ending in a voiceless consonant, devoice the z (cat's, Rick's).

The careful reader will have noticed that I haven't said anything about the personal pronoun it.  I'm saving that for a future posting.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 23, 2006 09:11 PM