Double possessives - possessive 's with appositives

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parap

Senior Member
Mainly US English
Hi,

I've been struggling with this construction for some time now and I'm wondering what your opinions are.

I call them "double possessives" for lack of a better term.

Here are two examples of what I mean and how I've been dealing with them so far:

1) "The room said a lot about its owner's, John's, character."
2) "The dog was the little girl's--Jane's--best friend."

How does this look to you? I've been tempted to make a single possessive out of the double, but that doesn't seem quite right either, e.g.

3) "The room said a lot about its owner, John's, character." --> problematic.
4) "The room said a lot about its owner's, John, character." --> definitely wrong.

What do you think?
 
  • panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Tricky question.
    There is an interesting and inconclusive old thread about this topic:
    Possessive - My brother's Tom the doctor car.

    There is, perhaps, one conclusion - if it looks OK (by no clear criteria) it's OK, otherwise re-write the sentence.
    The room said a lot about the character of its owner, John.

    I know that's not addressing the topic question, but I suspect it is how many people avoid the question.

    Some of the "it looks OK" assessment depends on the familiarity of the collocation.
    So it seems to me OK to write about my brother John's car, but not the tall woman Jane's car (with or without commas around Jane's).

    Which brings me to another thought - I write "... my brother John ..." without a comma but I feel that perhaps there should be commas in "... the tall woman, Jane, ...".

    Whatever is behind that decision is also behind my feeling that "my brother John's" is OK but "the tall woman Jane's" is not.
     
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    parap

    Senior Member
    Mainly US English
    Thanks for your input, Panjandrum.

    So how do you feel about (5) "The room said a lot about its owner John's character" and (6) "The dog was the little girl Jane's best friend"?

    I find both problematic grammatically, though (5) sounds better (whatever that means) than (6) to mine ears.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    They both look awkward to me, parap.

    I think I'm with panj on the reason - it's because I'd write non-possessive versions with commas:
    The room said a lot about its owner, John.
    The dog loved the little girl, Jane.
     

    desert_fox

    Senior Member
    English
    Hi,

    I call them "double possessives" for lack of a better term.

    Here are two examples of what I mean and how I've been dealing with them so far:

    1) "The room said a lot about its' owner, and Johns' character."
    2) "The dog belonged to the little girl--Janes' best friend."

    How does this look to you? I've been tempted to make a single possessive out of the double, but that doesn't seem quite right either, e.g.

    3) "The room said a lot about its owner, John's, character." --> problematic.
    4) "The room said a lot about its owner's, John, character." --> definitely wrong.

    What do you think?
    ....was the little girls??? not a good way to show possession. In 1}, you are talking about two different things and each one is possessed by something (or someone).
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I find both problematic in the sense that I think hard about them I don't have a guideline in my head for where the 's should go and anything seems to look/feel odd when examined in detail.

    If I came across either (5) or (6) in the wild I would read them without any concern.

    I've been looking around for help - with some results.
    When one possessive is in apposition with another, give the possessive form to the one nearest the noun they limit; as,
    They found it at Smith, the jeweler's, store.

    Some prefer to give the sign to the first of the possessives in apposition, particularly when the second has many adjuncts; as,
    I read an essay of Bacon's, the most eminent English philosopher.
    English Grammar: California State Board of Education (1888)
    I found my watch at Golden's, the pawnbroker's. ("Pawnbroker's" is in apposition with "Golden's," which is in the possessive case because it denotes Golden's possession of a "pawnshop," understood. ...)
    ...
    ... may also be properly written: "I found my watch at Golden, the pawnbroker's;" "I found my watch at Golden's, the pawnbroker."
    Business English and Correspondence; A Practical Treatise on the Methods by Which Expert Correspondents Produce Clear and Forceful Letters to Meet Modern Business Requirements (1918)
    So people have been dithering over this issue for at least the last 120 years :)
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    ....was the little girls??? not a good way to show possession. In 1}, you are talking about two different things and each one is possessed by something (or someone).
    I think parap is specifically asking about sentences in which the two nouns represent the same person - they are in apposition.
    John is the owner of the room; the little girl is Jane.

    (Its, in "its owner", does not take an apostrophe.)
     

    johndot

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The rule that I always apply is this one:

    1) "The room said a lot about its owner's, John's, character."

    If, as here, the possessor is set off by commas, dashes, brackets or other devices then both the noun and the proper noun take the apostrophe-s.

    2) "The dog was the little girl Jane's best friend."

    Otherwise, in a run-on sentence as above, I treat the little girl as an adjective phrase which, as such, doesn’t inflect.

    I’ve seen a citation recently; I’m looking for it.
     

    parap

    Senior Member
    Mainly US English
    I find both problematic in the sense that I think hard about them I don't have a guideline in my head for where the 's should go and anything seems to look/feel odd when examined in detail.

    If I came across either (5) or (6) in the wild I would read them without any concern.

    I've been looking around for help - with some results.
    So people have been dithering over this issue for at least the last 120 years :)
    Thanks! Good to know that some grammarians at least have taken it up! The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language either evaded the topic or I haven't been able to find it yet.
     

    parap

    Senior Member
    Mainly US English
    The rule that I always apply is this one:

    1) "The room said a lot about its owner's, John's, character."

    If, as here, the possessor is set off by commas, dashes, brackets or other devices then both the noun and the proper noun take the apostrophe-s.
    Grammatically this makes the most sense to me.

    2) "The dog was the little girl Jane's best friend."

    Otherwise, in a run-on sentence as above, I treat the little girl as an adjective phrase which, as such, doesn’t inflect.

    I’ve seen a citation recently; I’m looking for it.
    This one looks very odd to me, but if it has been recorded by a reputable source, I might start to rethink my initial rejection.
     

    lrosa

    Senior Member
    English - Ireland
    1) "The room said a lot about its owner's, John's, character."
    I really don't like this sentence with a comma, but I would happily write the first sentence as "The room said a lot about its owner's - John's - character" as you did with your second sentence.
    "Its owner John" without a comma, on the other hand, does not look well written to me. And clearly you can't write "Its owner, John's[,] character"
     

    pepoling

    New Member
    USA, English
    All of these sentences with double possessives sound very awkward. You would rewrite to avoid this construction. The only case in which it sounds OK is when the noun and its appositive are almost a unit, as in "My brother John"
     

    Ynez

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Thanks for your input, Panjandrum.

    So how do you feel about (5) "The room said a lot about its owner John's character" and (6) "The dog was the little girl Jane's best friend"?

    I find both problematic grammatically, though (5) sounds better (whatever that means) than (6) to mine ears.
    I think these would be the grammatically correct options. They are difficult to understand, anyhow.



    EDIT: To add that I only understood the meaning when I saw them like this. :)
     
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    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    To me, in writing, both sentences probably should be reworked anyway, correctness aside, because they are messy. The room reflected the character of John, its owner. The dog was the best friend of Jane, the little girl. In speech, I would probably say "The room reflected John, its owner's, character." and "The dog was Jane, the little girl's, best friend" but that looks strange in writing.
     

    Ynez

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    To me, in writing, both sentences probably should be reworked anyway, correctness aside, because they are messy. The room reflected the character of John, its owner. The dog was the best friend of Jane, the little girl. In speech, I would probably say "The room reflected John, its owner's, character." and "The dog was Jane, the little girl's, best friend" but that looks strange in writing.
    Are you sure you would make those pauses in speech? I mean the possessive versions. I can understand the first sentences are very clear.
     

    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    Yes, I am pretty sure that I would make those pauses in speech, and that they would sound idiomatic and no one would misunderstand. But they look really strange and possibly even completely incorrect, in writing. So I would avoid them.
     

    Ynez

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    I don't understand this from one of your sources, panjandrum:

    When one possessive is in apposition with another, give the possessive form to the one nearest the noun they limit; as,
    They found it at Smith, the jeweler's, store.
    Do you understand it?
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Both sources say that three possibilities are accepted (or were accepted 100 years ago:)).
    Taking the sentence Ynez queried as an example, let's look at the three possibilities. There are two nouns in apposition: Smith and jeweler.
    Mr Smith, who is a jeweler, owns the store where something was found. In the sentences, the two appositive nouns relate to, or limit, "store".

    1. They found it at Smith, the jeweler's, store.
    The 's is on the appositive that is nearer to store.
    The first source I quoted favours this form.
    The second says it is acceptable.

    2. They found it at Smith's, the jeweler, store.
    The 's is on the first appositive.
    Neither source favours this, but both say it is acceptable.

    3. They found it at Smith's, the jeweler's, store.
    Both appositives have 's.
    The second source I quoted favours this form.
    The first says it is acceptable.

    Like others, I would avoid having to pick one of these by expressing it differently, so I think the question is theoretical rather than of practical value.
     

    parap

    Senior Member
    Mainly US English
    The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language either evaded the topic or I haven't been able to find it yet.
    I found something, small, but something nevertheless. :)

    Supplementation

    A supplementation consisting of one NP as anchor and another as supplement may likewise have either multiple or single marking:

    [71]
    i [the Prime Minister's, Mr Howard's,] tax package -- [multiple marking]
    ii [the Prime Minister, Mr Howard's] tax package -- [single marking]

    The multiple-marking version is preferred in writing, no doubt because it allows the supplement to be set off by paired commas. In speech, however, it is the single-marking version that is usually heard.

    [Source: Huddleston and Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), p. 482]
     

    parap

    Senior Member
    Mainly US English
    Thanks to everyone for your ideas on the subject! I'm always open to hearing more, even though the problem has been pretty much solved by Panjandrum's sources and the CGEL.
     

    Ynez

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    pan, I think I have found a good source:

    http://grammartips.homestead.com/appositives.html


    My opinion is that parap's first sentences belong to the "restrictive type" of apposition, but I am truly having a headache reading these sentences. In speech, we really make a pause (or don't make any) wherever it is needed.

    As for the other sentence:

    They found it at Smith, the jeweler's, store.
    if Smith is the name of the shop, why not:

    They found it at Smith, the jeweler's store.


    I would not understand the sentence if there is a comma between the possessive and the noun.



    parap, your examples in post 21 belong to the "non-restrictive" type of apposition. I think.



    EDIT: I have just realised that example 1 seems to be "restrictive" (its owner, John,) because he must be the only owner...I must give up by now. :D :)
    EDIT2: I am also seeing 2 (the little girl, Jane) in a different light...I had read them differently the first time. :( :)
     
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    Ynez

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    I could see I was very confused about all this, so I should not feel shy to add a bit more of confusion :D This is the last thing I've thought:


    The problem may be applying formal grammatical rules to informal sentences that are felt and expressed differently from the logic of grammar.


    This is my personal vision, because I could not understand the sentences with the commas at first. :D :)
     

    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    I think it's fine because there doesn't seem to be any possibility of misunderstanding (I read this as a laptop that belongs to someone who is a friend of my father). More generally, though, these kind of constructions can become ambiguous, in which case it is better to rewrite them somehow.
     

    Nestea

    New Member
    German
    My mind is simple.
    I never saw such a combination but it sounded right. Just wanted to make sure I wasn't making anything up. Wikipedia doesn't have anything on it. Double possessives seems to mean something else.
     

    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    To be honest, I might say something like that, but I probably would not write it. In writing, I would probably expand it a little more.
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    You're usually pretty safe when there are just two possessives: my husband's aunt's funeral, her sister's dog's foot. They aren't elegant, but they're understandable.

    What isn't safe is if you try to do a triple: my father's friend's daughter's house.

    Don't do that. :) Not even in speech!
     
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