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Like many non-native speakers, formulations like "a friend of his" strike me as counter-intuitive, but I'm trying to adapt. Now I have a strange situation: I want to apply it to abstract entities. The sentence would be:

"What can we do with assignments and hierarchies of theirs?"

(I use assignments because I'm trying to avoid repetition. In the real text it's "blabla transmogrifying assignments").

I think this sounds awkward, and I can't recall ever having read anything like that. Is it possible that this type of construction is only valid for people? Or maybe it's a slightly different meaning of "of", and there's no possessive aspect to my usage of "of"?

I'm aware of Why do you say "friend of mine" instead of "friend of me" ? and Is "a friend of his" a used phrase? but all the examples had a person as the possessing subject.

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There are definitely ways this can sound natural: "speaking of foo and bar functions, a property of theirs is baz"; "that wheel of its is always coming loose". Some constructions are less natural: ?"speaking of the table, a color of its is blue". May be related to how much agency we imagine the entity in question has, but I'm not sure. –  aedia λ Jul 26 '11 at 0:32
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I would have cast that sentence as "What can we do with assignments and their heirarchies?". I can't even imagine saying, "I sat on the table, and a leg of its was wobbly." I can't think of an inanimate example were that construction sounds natural.

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"I sat on a table and one of its legs was wobbly." –  oosterwal Jul 26 '11 at 3:58
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Exactly, but you'd never say "... a leg of its ..." –  Richard A Jul 26 '11 at 4:03
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