Double Possessives

Are you a "friend of Fred" or a "friend of Fred's"?

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #449

doublepossessivesToday’s lesson involves a question of Cathy’s—or should that be “a question of Cathy”? By the end of this podcast, you’ll know which possessive to use. 

Now, Cathy has been wondering about the so-called double possessive and asks, “Which is correct—‘I am a friend of Fred’ or ‘I am a friend of Fred’s’?” She points out that it would sound normal to say, “He’s a friend of mine,” and "mine" is the possessive. 

Cathy's right, though you usually use only one possessive at a time. Many purists believe that double possessives should be relegated to informal and semiformal writing, if you use them at all. Nevertheless, double possessives have appeared in good writing for centuries, and most people will find themselves using them on occasion (1).

How to Create Possessives

You use possessives to indicate who owns what. If Squiggly owns a car, you say, “This is Squiggly's car.” You use an apostrophe plus an "s" on the end of “Squiggly.” You can also form a possessive by using the word “of,” such as “The Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.” (Of course, you could also say, “the United Kingdom’s Crown Jewels.”) These examples are just normal possessives. There’s nothing double about them. The confusion arises when you use both ways of making possessives at the same time, as in “a friend of Fred’s.” Here you have an apostrophe plus an "s" plus an “of.” Although such a double possessive is allowed, I personally prefer “Fred’s friend” over “a friend of Fred’s.” Why not just say, "He's Fred's friend"?

Incorrect Possessives

Nevertheless, to help us learn what’s right, let’s look at some possessives and double possessives that native speakers wouldn't use. It definitely sounds odd to say, “a car of Squiggly.” On the other hand, you could say, “a car of Squiggly's,” assuming he has lots of cars and you’re pointing out one of them. However, “a car of Squiggly's” doesn’t sound as natural to me as “one of Squiggly's cars.”

On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal to say, “the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom” or “the United Kingdom’s Crown Jewels,” but it turns out that it’s ungrammatical to say, “the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom’s.” Here’s a clear-cut rule that helps explain this: When you’re talking about inanimate objects—objects that aren’t alive, such as “the United Kingdom”—you can’t use a double possessive (2). According to The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, for a double possessive to be legal, the object of the preposition “of” has to be “definite and human.” In other words, it’s fine to say, “a friend of my uncle’s” but not “a friend of the museum’s.” You have to say, “a friend of the museum.” However, according to this rule, it would be OK to say, “He's a friend of a friend’s,” but we’ve all heard the common expression “a friend of a friend.” I guess double possessives don’t always work. That should make some sticklers happy.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.