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How to Construct an Unambiguous Joint Possessive that Follows a Verb?

I've read that when writing about multiple possessors who jointly posses a thing, the common practice is to add a Saxon-genitive ('s) to the last noun in the series. (E.g., John and Mary's cats refers to cats owned by both John and Mary.) Whereas, when writing about multiple possessors who individually possess separate things, the common practice is to add a Saxon-genitive to all the nouns in the series. (E.g., John's and Mary's cats refers to two sets of cats: John owns one of the sets, and Mary owns the other set.)

However, joint possessives can be ambiguous when they are placed immediately after a verb. For instance, I sang to John and Mary's daughter, could mean 'I sang to a guy named John and I sang to this girl who said she was the daughter of a woman named Mary', or 'I sang to a female who calls her father John, and calls her mother Mary'.

Is there a solution to this problem that's recommended by grammarians or linguists?

Thank you

Please don't answer with a recommendation that the construction be avoided. Whether in life or in language, I don't believe that it's helpful to tell a person that they will not be faced with a problem if they stop trying to solve it. Solving a problem (especially a novel one) does more than solve the problem at hand: Solving a problem helps the problem-solver become better at solving problems.

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Every grammarian and linguist that I know would say that the solution to this problem is to avoid the construction. –  John Lawler May 22 '13 at 13:57
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I'm not quite following. Obviously you can remove the ambiguity by saying "I sang to John's and Mary's daughter". And obviously it doesn't mean that you sang to two daughters. (Likewise, "John's and Mary's cats" is only ambiguous because cats is plural.) So I'm not really sure what your question here is. Also, in speech "I sang to [John] and [Mary's daughter]" is completely different from "I sang to [[John and Mary]'s daughter]". Writing is notoriously bad at reproducing intonation, but that is a general problem, and there are various general workarounds. –  RegDwigнt May 22 '13 at 14:01
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No, you can't remove the ambiguity that by saying 'I sang to John's and Mary's daughter'. The construction you suggested is a concise way of writing, 'I sang to John's daughter and I sang to Mary's daughter'. The singular 'daughter' compounds the problem. Even if that were not the case, the problem would remain unresolved when writing about possessors who both possess more than one of the same type of thing. 'John's and Mary's cats' is not an ambiguous construction - the style guides that I've read are unanimous on that point. –  Hal May 22 '13 at 14:36
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I don't understand "Please don't answer with a recommendation that the construction be avoided." If someone's asking how to eat soup with a fork and I answer that a different utensil is needed, would you say I'm not helping to solve the problem of eating soup with a fork? –  gmcgath May 22 '13 at 15:48
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Note that the "ambiguity" here is artificial, produced by an absence of context. In ordinary speech, or in a sustained narrative, the people involved will be known to the audience. –  StoneyB May 22 '13 at 19:01

1 Answer 1

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I sang to John and Mary's daughter.

This is ordinarily understood to express your 'I sang to a female who calls her father John, and calls her mother Mary'. John and Mary is a single conjunctive expression standing in a genitive relationship to daughter.

If you want to distinguish this from 'I sang to a guy named John and I sang to this girl who said she was the daughter of a woman named Mary' you must explicitly divorce John from conjunction with Mary. This is most efficiently accomplished thus:

I sang to John and to Mary's daughter.

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While I agree with you in principle that this is a way of distinguishing, my first reaction is that (in isolation) I would interpret your suggested sentence as meaning that he sang to each person on a separate occasion. –  TrevorD May 22 '13 at 17:30
    
@TrevorD Fersher; but so does OP's paraphrase, "I sang to A and I sang to B". –  StoneyB May 22 '13 at 17:36
    
Accepted! I hadn't noticed OP's paraphrase. (Had to look up fersher - never heard that before!) –  TrevorD May 22 '13 at 17:41
    
@TrevorD It's Early Modern Valspeak, one of the dialects which interacted with Old High 31337 to produce Middle Lolspeak. –  StoneyB May 22 '13 at 18:51
    
Brilliant. Thank you. –  Hal May 22 '13 at 20:49

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