Double Possessives

This week on Wordsmith Essays’ blog, we’re talking about possession.  Writing with possessives is usually fairly simple in English; stick an ‘s at the end of your words to indicate ownership, unless the world already ends in s.  But should you ever have a double possessives—more than one possession in a single sentence?

There is a rule of thumb in formal writing that you should not use more than one possessive at a time.  That’s not just ‘s words, but phrases with the word “of” in it, as well—for example, “a friend of Aaron’s” puts two possessives on the same word—both the “of” and the “’s” indicate that the friend belongs to Aaron.  Therefore, you should write it as “a friend of Aaron” or “Aaron’s friend” in formal writing.

There’s something odd going on there, though, because in informal writing and speech, many people will find “a friend of Aaron’s” to be a much more natural thing to say.  There are other examples, too, like “a friend of mine”—again, that’s technically a double possessive, but it sounds like natural English to most people.  Double possessives have been used in writing and speech for centuries, and avoiding them at all costs can make your writing sound stilted and unnatural.  It’s hard to find the proper balance here, and it’s really something that only comes with practice.

If you’re looking for a hard-and-fast rule, however, the Associated Press has a fairly good rule of thumb to stick with.  They recommend only using a double possessive if both of these conditions are met:

  • The second possessive must be animate, so “the friend of John’s” is OK, but “the government of France’s” is not.
  • The word before “of” must involve only a portion of the animate object’s possessions, so “the friend of John’s” is OK but “the friends of John’s” is not.

Of course, if you’re unsure, you can avoid the issue entirely by rewriting your sentence, but occasionally, a double possessive can actually help clear up confusion—in which case, no matter what the style guide says, you should use it.

For example, take “this is Will’s photograph”.  That could either mean”

  • This is a photograph of Will; i.e., someone took a picture of Will, and here it is.
  • This is a photograph belonging to Will; i.e., he took or bought the picture in question.

Without using a double possessive, the meaning is unclear.  With the double possessive, however, you can emphasize what exactly you mean:

  • If it’s a photograph of Will, you can say “This is a photograph of Will”, without the double possessive.
  • If it’s a photograph belonging to Will, you can say “This is a photograph of Will’s”, making the meaning clear with the double possessive.

Of course, if you’re not sure you’ve got all your possessives in the right place, or you just want another pair of eyes to make sure everything’s written as well as it could be, why not stop by Wordsmith Essays’ order page today?  Our team of international editors will help make sure you’re getting the most out of your writing.



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