February 06, 2008

Genitive anxiety

SS writes from Florida:

My question relates to the locution that takes the form of: "So-and-so is a friend of Bill's." This drives me nuts. I always want to ask, "A friend of Bill's what? His wife? His son? His father?"

Would that be an appropriate issue for someone to write about on the blog? Or am I off base?

Well, I'm writing about it, so I guess it's appropriate. And it's not off base to be puzzled by the logic of this construction, especially when it's embedded in another possessive, as in "A friend of mine's pet bear". But puzzling or not, these double genitives "have been around for centuries and are not hard to find in real life", as Arnold Zwicky wrote in the post I just linked to.

My correspondent certainly knows that double genitives are not hard to find in real life -- that's exactly what's driving him nuts. Just think of his anxiety during Bill Clinton's presidency, when "friend of Bill's" was so common as to deserve its own initialism F.O.B. Indeed, SS's note to me echoes almost verbatim the gripe voiced by James J. Kilpatrick in March of 1993:

How should we punctuate a double possessive? USA Today reported in January that Tyrone Ford "had been a supporter of Marion Barry's during the former mayor's drug trial.'' That same day USA Today identified Laura Anthony as "a college classmate of Hillary Clinton's.'' But USA Today also has identified Labor Secretary Robert Reich as "a close friend of Clinton.''

The New York Times in January said that "journalists defy a friend of Bill at their own risk.'' On another occasion, the Times spoke of a party arranged by a friend of Mr. Brown.''

The editor of Webster's Dictionary of English Usage prefers the apostrophe-s, i.e., "a friend of Mr. Brown's.'' My own vote goes to the Times style: "a friend of Bill.'' Whenever I see "a friend of Bill's,'' I want to ask, Bill's what? A friend of Bill's mother? His brother? A friend of Bill's wife?

My advice to SS is to buy a copy of Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, and to turn to it for counsel and consolation during those long nights of the soul when he might otherwise be poring over old James Kilpatrick columns. Referring to the entry in MWCDEU for double genitive, we learn that this

... is an idiomatic construction of long standing in English -- going back before Chaucer's time -- and should be of little interest except to learners of the language, because, as far as we know, it gives native speakers no trouble whatsoever.

But the double genitive was discovered by the 18th-century grammarians and has consequently been the subject of considerable speculation, explanation, and sometimes disapproving comment.

MWCDEU points out an example from the work of Alexander Woollcott where Kilpatrick's prescription won't work: "... that place of Dorothy Thompson's is only sixty miles away".

No native speaker of English would write [this example] as "that place of Dorothy Thompson".

The MWCDEU entry gives some interesting information about this construction's analytic history:

Lowth 1762 ... ran afoul of "a soldier of the king's." He seems to have mulled it over awhile; then he adds that "here are really two possessives: for it means 'one of the soldiers of the king.'" This is a partitive construction in which two ofs are used to explain away the supposedly redundant 's. The partititve explanation has persisted down to [the present], even though the grammarian Otto Jespersen exploded it in 1926 with an example from Tristram Shandy: "This exactness of his." The phrase cannot be turned into "one of the exactnesses of him." An even plainer example is another Shandean phrase, "the long nose of his."

The double genitive is standard English and should not be worried about.

But merely telling someone that they shouldn't worry is not always adequate therapy, as generations of psychologists have learned to their profit. So SS might try to master his anxieties through analytic insight, beginning with what he could learn from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. (It's $175 -- but that's less than the cost of two therapist-hours, at standard rates, and its 1,860 pages will provide far more than two hours of solace.) CGEL points out that the construction we're talking about, which it calls the "oblique genitive", is semantically more restricted than the construction in which the genitive precedes the head noun. Thus we have (chapter 5 "Nouns and noun phrases", §16.5.3, "Alternating patterns of complementation"):

Mary's green eyes those green eyes of Mary's
Mary's book that book of Mary's
Mary's secretary that secretary of Mary's
Mary's new house that new house of Mary's


Mary's anger ?that anger of Mary's
Mary's obituary ?that obituary of Mary's
the cathedral's spire *that spire of the cathedral's
the summer's heat *that heat of the summer's

(The judgements as given in CGEL.)

There's plenty more to be learned about this construction and its relationship to the rest of syntax, semantics and history of English. As Richard Feynman famously said, "No problem is too small or trivial if we really do something about it". But the mode of doing that I recommend is to investigate and to try to understand, not to sink into peevish frustration. It's better for your brain as well as for your digestion.

[John Cowan writes:

"Many a modern philosopher is a student of Kant, but any student of Kant's has been dead for more than a century."

(I don't know who should get the credit for this.)

It seems to me that "student of Kant" is what classicists call an objective genitive (I don't know the current jargon for this): there is an underlying clause "X studies Kant". "Student of Kant's" by contrast is truly possessive, and means "student belonging to Kant".

Apropos of this, English allows both subjective genitives like "Caesar's murders" (Caesar murdered X.PL) and objective ones like "Caesar's murder" (X murdered Caesar), as well as double-barreled ones like "Brutus's murder of Caesar". But in French (or so I am told) subjective genitives appear only in fixed phrases, whereas objective genitives are productive, and the double-barrelled form is "l'assassinat de CÚsar par Brutus", where "par" is the regular agent preposition in passive constructions.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 6, 2008 05:37 AM