What Is a Double Genitive (and Is There Anything Wrong With It)?

double genitive
The phrase "a toy of the child's" is an example of a double genitive. (Carlo A/Getty Images)

Take a good look at the following sentence:

Natsaha is a friend of Joan's and a client of Marlowe's.

If this sentence strikes you as extremely possessive, you're on the right track.

The combination of the preposition of and a possessive form—either a noun ending in -'s or a possessive pronoun—is called a double genitive (or double possessive). And while it may appear overly possessive, the construction has been around for centuries and it's perfectly correct.

British novelist Henry Fielding used the double genitive in A Journey From This World to the Next (1749):

At seven years old I was carried into France . . . , where I lived with a person of quality, who was an acquaintance of my father's.

You'll also find it in Anne Brontë's second (and final) novel:

Shortly after, they both came up, and she introduced him as Mr. Huntingdon, the son of a late friend of my uncle's.
(The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848)

American writer Stephen Crane slipped a double genitive into one of his short stories:

"Oh, just a toy of the child's," explained the mother. "She's grown so fond of it, she loves it so."
("The Stove," in Whilomville Stories, 1900)

And in a recent novel, author Bil Wright doubled up on the construction:

He'd already proved he was a liar. And he had a girlfriend even though he wasn't divorced. No, not a monster. But definitely an enemy of my mother's and mine.
(When the Black Girl Sings, 2008)

As these examples demonstrate, the double genitive is generally used for emphasis or clarification when the "possessor" is human.

But watch out. If you stare at it too long, you may convince yourself that you've found a mistake. Apparently that's what happened to one of the original language mavens, James Buchanan.

Back in 1767, he tried to outlaw the double genitive:

Of being the sign of the Genitive Case, we cannot put it before a Noun with ('s) for this is making two Genitives.
(A Regular English Syntax)

Keep in mind, as pointed out in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, that the "18th-century grammarians simply had a horror of anything double, because such constructions did not occur in Latin." But this is English, of course, not Latin, and despite its apparent redundancy, the double genitive is a well-established idiom—a functional part of the language dating back to Middle English. As Theodore Bernstein says in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins (1971), "the double genitive is of long standing, idiomatic, useful and here to stay."

Finally, consider Martin Endley's demonstration of how the double genitive can be used to draw distinctions:

(59a) I saw a statue of Queen Victoria in the park.
(59b) I saw a statue of Queen Victoria's in the park.

Sentence (59a) can only mean that the speaker saw a statue depicting the great British monarch. On the other hand, the double genitive in (59b) would most naturally be understood to mean that the speaker saw a statue that once belonged to Queen Victoria but which depicted someone else.
(Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar, 2010)

All the same, if the double genitive troubles you, just follow the example of linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum and call it something else: "The oblique genitive construction is commonly referred to as the 'double genitive.' . . . [H]owever, we do not regard of as a genitive case marker, and hence there is only one genitive here, not two" (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, 2002).