Thursday, May 7, 2009

Puzzling possessives

A few days ago a reader wondered about the construction pork producers’ and Israelis’ objecting to. Why apostrophes?

The use of a possessive with a gerund (the present participle of a verb functioning as a noun) is common in English. So is the use of a non-possessive noun. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage finds that both forms have been examined and faulted or endorsed over a long span — and that it is quite common for an author to switch from one to the other. So of these two possibilities —

I can’t stand his creeping up behind me while I’m working

I can’t stand him creeping up behind me while I’m working

you get to use whichever you like. Another step to reduce usage anxiety!

If the possessive with a gerund makes you step back, you may also be put off momentarily by the double possessive, or double genitive. That is a construction in which possession is indicated twice, by a possessive form and the word of. One refers to a friend of mine rather than a friend of me. (You can also say a friend to me, though it will probably sound stilted to many listeners or readers.)

The construction has an ancient pedigree in English, and Merriam-Webster’s explains its function in reducing ambiguity by distinguishing between an objective genitive and a possessive genitive. Here’s how: Jane’s picture can mean a picture belonging to Jane or a picture of Jane. Saying a picture of Jane’s — the double genitive — distinguishes the former sense from the latter.


  1. I'm always kerphluzzled by plural possessives.

    If Jack and Jill own a pail, I say it's "Jack and Jill's pail."

    But when they give it to Mark and me, I panic. Is it now "Mark and my pail"? "Mark's and my pail"?

    I usually just end up regifting the item before somebody makes me describe it in writing.

  2. The double possessive also lets you add other determiners - that old friend of Jack's, an old friend of Jack's: both are different from Jack's old friend.

    I think I'd say "my and Mark's pail" - or even "our pail, Mark and me" :-)

  3. Plural possessives have always been a tricky subject whenever I'm discussing grammar with folks in my writing group, as is the construction of possessives with gerunds - not to mention the mere reference to gerunds in the first place.

    Thanks for the refresher.

    PS - I wish I could get my family to read my blog :-)