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There's this funny gap I tried to write a paper once upon a time when I studied linguistics, and I'd like to know if anyone has insight into it. The construction in question is the possessive determiner with 's in English. It's a noun phrase made up of a noun phrase followed by 's, and its extremely liberal in the noun phrases it allows:

  • Jack's house
  • Tom and Mary's music collection
  • several stories' endings
  • the bus's headlights
  • the guy I talked to yesterday's cat
  • a lighthouse in the bay's coordinates
  • don't you know who's snide comment

But there are certain noun phrases that are not allowed -- those that end in personal pronouns:

  • all of us's friend [a friend of all of us]
  • you and me's picture [a picture of you and me]
  • the gift I gave to them's receipt

Anyhow, I'd appreciate any thoughts on this and/or pointers to papers that discuss it.

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The plural first-person possessive is "our". He is our friend. The singular possessive is "my" second-person is "your". "Your and my picture", or "our picture." Third-person plural possessive is "their". Although, the receipt itself belongs to the gift, so it should be its receipt. "I gave them its receipt." "It is their gift." – Picturepocket Nov 13 '10 at 4:36
Reminds me of my wife and I's seafood collaboration dinner. – RegDwigнt Nov 13 '10 at 9:05
"There's this funny gap I tried to write a paper once upon a time when I studied linguistics…" — I think there's an "on" or "upon" missing. :-) You probably meant "…I tried to write a paper on once upon a time"? – ShreevatsaR Nov 13 '10 at 11:40
"A time when I studied linguistics, I tried to write a paper upon this funny gap." – Jon Purdy Nov 14 '10 at 9:16
Syntactically speaking, the ’s in “The gift I gave to them’s receipt” attaches to the whole noun phrase “The gift I gave to them”, not to the single word “them”. Similarly, the ’s in “The Queen of England’s hat” attaches to “The Queen of England”, not just “England” and in “the guy I talked to yesterday’s cat” the ’s attaches to “the guy I talked to yesterday” not “yesterday”. – nohat Nov 14 '10 at 23:48

What a great observation. I’m not aware of any linguistic literature on this (but I’ll post an edit if I come across some).

A few comments on the data:

First, I’d be careful of using coordinated pronouns (you and me) to illustrate the core problem, as people have wild ideas about what is normatively sanctioned and this often affects their judgments. I think a reasonably safe frame would be Anyone who likes X’s answer would be “yes”; e.g.:

Anyone who likes butter’s answer would be “yes”.
Anyone who likes running’s answer would be “yes”.
Anyone who likes cats’ answer would be “yes”.
??Anyone who likes me’s answer would be “yes”.
??Anyone who likes you’s answer would be “yes”.
??Anyone who likes him’s answer would be “yes”.

Second, the effect applies to demonstrative too, I think:

??Anyone who likes that’s answer would be “yes”.
??Anyone who likes these’(s) answer would be “yes”.

Third, I find these all slightly to quite uncomfortable, rather than crashingly bad.

This last fact might be significant, as it suggests a parsing, rather than a generation, difficulty. Pursuing that hunch, I’d look for an explanation in ’s’s being a determiner. Part of the motivation for treating ’s as a determiner is the complementary distribution between DP’s (e.g., John’s, the policeman’s) and the, personal pronouns, and demonstratives (e.g., *the policeman’s that hat). Significantly, these last two sets (personal pronouns and demonstratives) are what ’s attaches to in the preceding ‘??’ examples. As nohat observes in the comment on your question, ’s attaches to the whole phrase. But that’s at the semantic level. In linear terms, it encliticizes to the last word the phrase. It appears that this encliticization process doesn’t like moving a determiner onto another determiner (which is reminiscent of Norvin Richard’s findings on linearization more generally). This may be getting a bit technical, so I’d better stop; but I hope that gives you some ideas.

P.S.: I find a difference between weak and strong pronouns. Anyone who like hím’s answer is worse than Anyone who líkes ’im’s answer.

P.P.S.: Of course, copular ’s is fine in all of these. Anyone who like me’s going to answer “yes”, Anyone who likes you’s going to answer “yes”, etc.

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The simple rule is just that pronouns follow different rules from nouns. You can take any noun phrase and apply an 's in order to make it possessive. You can not do the same with a pronoun. Every pronoun has its own possessive form:

I -> my you -> your he -> his she -> her we -> our you all (second person plural) -> (someone help me on this one) they -> their

Note also that they is sometimes used as a singular gender-ambiguous pronoun. In this case it is still converted as the plural to their.

Looking at all three of your examples:

*all of us's friend (a friend of all of us)

Since us is a pronoun (in this case, it's the objective form of we) we need to use a pronoun possessive instead.

all of our friend


*you and me's picture (a picture of you and me)

Again, we see two pronouns (me is the objective form of I). So the correct form is:

your and my picture


*the gift I gave to them's receipt

This one is a little different, since the problem doesn't lie with the usage of pronouns. The object in particular is "the gift", which we referenced directly without the use of the word "it". The problem with this sentence is the existence of the word "gave". Once you add a verb this is no longer a noun phrase, but is now an independent clause. As a clause you must either give it its own sentence, introduce a conjunction, or make it part of a prepositional phrase.

I gave them the gift. Its receipt... (new sentence)
I gave them the gift, and its receipt... (conjunction)
the receipt of the gift I gave to them (prepositional phrase)

Note that in the first two cases we had to introduce the pronoun "it". We could also substitute "it" with the word "the gift" ("the gift's receipt..."). The reason that we had to do this becomes obvious if you consider the rest of the sentence. The receipt is part of a separate clause, so in order to reference something in a previous clause we must either use a pronoun or repeat the object we are bringing back.

On final note, if you wanted the receipt to be part of the predicate then you would follow the same rules:

They lost the gift's receipt. It was the gift I gave to them. (new sentence)
(Someone help me on making this into a conjunctive phrase, please)
They lost the receipt of the gift I gave to them
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I don’t think this analysis is correct. The fist of the man who hit him is “the man who hit him’s fist” not “the man who hit his fist”. – nohat Nov 14 '10 at 23:52
Your answer is "all of our friend", which I don't think makes sense. – ShreevatsaR Nov 15 '10 at 11:00

"All of our friend" could conceivably be technically correct but is so ambiguous (all of our friend except his feet ?) as to require rejection. "A friend of all of us" is clearly to be preferred, on the basis that one should never sacrifice clarity for form. It is worth noting, incidentally, that us's was until recently and may still be in use in Yorkshire dialect as in "Let's go for a ride in us's car."

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Replace friend with fault. “All of our fault” vs. “all of us’s fault” vs. “the fault of all of us”. None works well, but personally, I find the second to be the least quintessentially hopeless. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 26 '14 at 15:31
"The fault of all of us" works perfectly. Why not? – Adrian W Feb 5 '15 at 9:57

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