Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

As this NGram shows, we nearly always use the possessive form of personal pronouns for friend of mine/his/ours/etc.

But when it comes to actual names, we prefer friend of Peter without the possessive apostrophe. That preference is even more marked with, say, friend of America. Not that I think the usage itself is particularly American - it's much the same with Britain.

Personally, I find friend of him grates. In general I've no strong feelings either way as to whether it's friend of Peter or friend of Peter's (though I deplore the possessive in this example), but in line with many others, I really don't like the possessive in relation to things like countries.

Why is this?

Edit: Noting an apparent "progression" (pronoun -> person -> nation) marked by reduction in use of the possessive, I checked at a finer "granularity". NGram shows that although it does occur, friend of me virtually "flatlines" against friend of mine. But the bias reduces through of you, of us, and by the time I get to of them it's much less extreme. There seems to be something "egocentric" about the double possessive.

Presumably when babies learn to speak, they soon notice that possessive pronouns, possessive apostrophes, and the word "of", all do the same job. Parents would correct a child who says "of mine's", but probably wouldn't even notice the same "redundancy" in "of Peter's". Younger speakers are unlikely to even be talking about something "of America's". Perhaps as we mature we tend to discard the "double possessive" for the more "distant" things that only adults are likely talk about, but we keep it for "closer" people because that's how we spoke when we were younger.

EDIT2 I note that I'm a great fan of him is vanishingly rare compared to ...fan of his, but with ...fan (of John) the double possessive occurs far less often than ...friend (of John's). Usage seems to be affected by the noun before "of" as well as the one after it. This is getting complicated...

share|improve this question
    
Do the NGrams show if the use of the possessive apostrophe has declined over the years? My theory is that we continue to use the possessive pronouns because the speech rhythm sounds nice with them, but the s sound at the end of a name is becoming obsolete because it doesn't sound as nice (and it's done away with as it isn't necessary to convey the meaning anyway). –  Irene Dec 5 '11 at 6:58
3  
From Shakespeare: "friend of mine", "friend of Caesar's", "friend of the good Duke of York's", but "friend of France". The "doubled possessive" for names has been used for a long time. –  Peter Shor Jan 14 '12 at 15:56
1  
Your N-gram counts for "friend of Peter" vs "friend of Peter's" are misleading. They fail to account for "friend of Peter Lastname". –  Mark Beadles Jan 14 '12 at 20:09
1  
"I am a friend of the King's." Yep, that's how I do it. The simple rule is, "I am the King's friend" implies "I am a friend of the King's." –  MrHen Jan 15 '12 at 2:45
1  
Wish I knew the answer. :( –  ApprenticeHacker Jan 15 '12 at 10:37
show 19 more comments

9 Answers 9

up vote 8 down vote accepted
+100

To me, "Friend of Peter" and "Friend of Peter's" mean the inverse of each other.

In "Joe is a friend of Peter", Joe is the active person in the friendship - it describes Joe's active relationship to Peter. Peter is one of the people Joe expresses friendship toward.

In "Joe is a friend of Peter's", Peter is the active person in the friendship - it describes Joe as being the object of Peter's friendship. Joe is one of the people Peter expresses friendship toward.

In most contexts, nothing is being implied about the inverse relationship, although friendship is usually reciprocal. It's usually more a matter of who the speaker knows about the relationship from. So if I'm introducing you to Joe, but we both know Peter, and Peter's talked about Joe, I might tell you that Joe is a friend of Peter's.

The distinction is probably most significant in high school. ;-)

share|improve this answer
    
This is an interesting approach - I can certainly see the logic behind it, and I really like the "high school" reference. I take it you mean that if Peter is the most popular boy in class, we're more likely to see of Peter's because his "patronage" is more important than Joe's. The problem is the usage evidence points the other way - the more "distant/lofty" the person/thing represented by Peter is, the less likely we are to see the double possessive. Notwithstanding that, I'm upvoting this as one of the few really creative / inspired answers here so far! –  FumbleFingers Jan 19 '12 at 23:07
    
@FumbleFingers - Nope, I meant the opposite - the direction the evidence supports. A "friend of Peter's" is someone Peter acknowledges as a friend - as I said, "... is one of the people Peter expresses friendship toward". –  Ed Staub Jan 20 '12 at 0:35
    
oic - you mean the apostrophe implies Peter is "making the running" in the relationship (his friends are more "of his own choice"). Whereas if there's no apostrophe, he's being more "passively befriended". That makes a lot of sense, since fairly obviously if we replace Peter with America, we'd expect those people who want to be its friends (and be associated with the Great Power) to outnumber those that the nation itself goes out looking to befriend. This is looking increasingly convincing to me! –  FumbleFingers Jan 20 '12 at 1:12
    
In fact - soddit. I'm busy tomorrow and might not be around to award the bonus, so it goes to you. Too bad if anyone else could have bettered this rationale in the next 24 hours - the question has been around long enough and frankly it's been getting nowhere fast. I'm not saying it's the whole story, but it really does seem typical of the kind of principle I was hoping for - something relatively simple that many of us could respond to and enact without being consciously aware of why we do it. Perhaps for your next trick you can figure out why(if) it varies through letter, friend, supporter! –  FumbleFingers Jan 20 '12 at 1:23
    
Thanks! Not sure what you mean by "letter", and I've never seen "supporter of Peter's". "Supporter" denotes a direction of the relationship, whereas with "friend" the direction is much fuzzier (because friendship is likely to be reciprocal) and hence needs clarification. The "Erewhon is a Friend of America" case is more bothersome to me - I see it used a lot to mean "America should express friendship toward Erewhon because Erewhon does express friendship toward America". I think the whole statement just gets abbreviated. –  Ed Staub Jan 20 '12 at 13:39
show 3 more comments

I buried my lede way down below. Headline summary: I believe the evidence shows that the choice is conditioned by a combination of semantic and syntactic criteria, namely animacy, definitiness, type of possession, and weight. It doesn't appear to be a hard and fast rule, but rather a tendency to choose between forms based on the semantics. It's very likely, therefore, that different speakers will make slightly different choices or have slightly different intuitions, but that we all agree on the "edge cases".


This construction, often called the "double genitive", "double possessive", or "oblique: genitive, has a long history in English. Compare:

So it's been around for a while, and long been remarked upon (the last reference above is from a phil0logical society proceedings in 1864.)

The salient point is that its usage is limited to personal referents.

Personal referents would include not only the personal pronouns ("of mine", "of yours", etc.) but proper and improper nouns referring to persons ("of John's", "of the king's"). I imagine that in personification it might be used by metaphor ("of America's"). But you would never have "of the door's" or the like; this explains the pattern seen by the questioner.

This is evidently a result of its deeper origin as a partitive construction (by partitive I mean constructions like the modern "one of the soldiers" which is of similar origin). It's not unusual for grammatical constructions to be conditioned by features like animacy, and for animacy to be heirarchical. In English, animacy is a covert (semantic) category, so it can be elusive to notice.



EDIT: Let me address what I believe is the crux of the question here, the "why" in Why is it usually “friend of his”, but no possessive apostrophe with “friend of Peter”?

I will actually answer a slightly modified version of the question, to wit:

Why is it almost invariably “friend of his”, but we sometimes find both “friend of Peter” or "friend of Peter's" in different circumstances?

I will for now accept the stipulation that "friend of Peter" is found more often than "friend of Peter's".

"Why" is always a difficult question, as there are no just-so-stories in linguistics. From a purely empirical point of view, there are no whys. Examining the evidence, we find that the double genitive is used almost invariably in "friend of mine" and we almost never find "friend of me". We likewise find that "friend of Peter" and "Peter's" are both found in distribution. The "Peter's" construction is, however, marked. It seems to be found more often in speech than in writing, and perhaps in certain dialects. But none of this tells us "why", unfortunately.

But we can look at the grammar of the construction. Although this is more of a "how" than a "why", it might have some explanatory power. Unfortunately the question here seems to be quite complex. It's some combination of definiteness, proper vs. extrinsic possession, animacy, and weight. Nearly all references agree that the double genitive is related to the partitive ("some of my friends") in its origin.

My interpretation of all this is that when the noun in question is more definite, the possession is more proper, the animacy is high, and the weight is low, we are more likely to use "of x's".

This paper at MIT has an excellent discussion of the questions surrounding this construction.

share|improve this answer
    
I think you're on to something, though Wikipedia's examples are somewhat disingenuous. I can find hundreds of examples of "Any friend of XXX's is a friend of mine", every single one of which uses the double genitive for the fairly obvious reason that to not do so would pretty much force "Any friend of XXX is a friend of me", which we don't like. And "A picture of John" would create a different meaning, so we simply can't use it there. –  FumbleFingers Jan 14 '12 at 18:02
    
...also, we can "personify" anything - see thousands of Google Books instances of the Galaxy's centre, so I'm not sure where that gets us. –  FumbleFingers Jan 14 '12 at 18:03
    
...and why is it far more likely to be "A wish of the King", as opposed to "A friend of the King's"? –  FumbleFingers Jan 14 '12 at 18:19
    
I don't quite understand what you mean by Wikipedia's examples being disingenuous. They seem serious and quite honestly arrived at. Regarding personification, "the Galaxy's centre" isn't a double genitive, which is what I was limiting my remarks to. –  Mark Beadles Jan 14 '12 at 20:18
    
The Wikipedia's examples are disingenuous because in the case of the two examples I quoted, there are two different reasons why the double genitive would be used, neither of which directly relate to the more common case epitomised in "friend of Peter's" (the page itself is flagged needs additional citations, which is justified, IMHO). And since you said "usage is limited to personal referents", I just flagged up "the Galaxy's centre" to show that almost any noun can be a "personal referent" - so it's almost like saying "usage is limited to nouns", which doesn't tell us much. –  FumbleFingers Jan 14 '12 at 21:09
show 6 more comments

It’s misleading to think of the apostrophe as a possessive marker. It’s more helpful to think of it as a genitive inflection, certainly capable of expressing possession (John’s car), but also used to specify or classify the reference of a noun (the girl’s face, a bird’s nest), to indicate time and place (a week’s holiday, the country’s capital) and to refer to a noun that is understood from the context (I’m going to a friend’s (house), Macy’s (store)). Seen against that background, the use of the apostrophe after the name of a country is unexceptionable. That’s one of Greece’s problems, for example, is surely more natural than That’s one of the problems of Greece.

share|improve this answer
2  
I don't think That’s one of Greece’s problems is the same "class" of usage. I know we wouldn't normally phrase it this way, but the corresponding form is, for example, High interest rates are a problem of Greece['s]. I think because of the alliteration, we never say He's a friend of Greece's, but it's far from unknown to be a friend of America's –  FumbleFingers Dec 5 '11 at 15:17
    
...and just because I use the word "possessive" doesn't mean I'm focussed on "ownership". But it's always the face of the girl anyway, not of the girl's. On the other hand, if we actually name the girl, it's as likely to be friend of Anne's as friend of Anne. But friend of Jesus's is pretty rare - again, presumably because of the excessive alliteration. –  FumbleFingers Dec 5 '11 at 15:24
    
@FumbleFingers: I was merely responding to your dislike of 'the possessive in relation to things like countries'. –  Barrie England Dec 5 '11 at 15:26
    
Well, It's starting to look as if that dislike isn't just a personal hangup - most other people are leery of it, and either forget about the apostrophe with countries and such, or rephrase along your lines so they don't have to bother with it in the first place. The bottom line is the "doubled possessive" is idiomatic, but I'm getting the impression it started with personal pronouns, and is still in the process of gradually extending to analagous but more "impersonal" constructions. –  FumbleFingers Dec 5 '11 at 15:38
add comment

Your primary question is 'why'. But first the phenomenon.

One says

to him

but

of his

All prepositions in English take the objective case, except for 'of' which takes the possessive, with pronouns.

One says

to Peter

and

of Peter

or

of Peter's

the unmarked case being more formal and the possessive more informal.

So that's just the phenomenon. Logically, one might think that 'of' should take the accusative pronoun to be consistent with other prepositions. Possibly the double genitive with pronouns is just a change by analogy with the phonetic idea of assimilation, two things close together modify one so they share a property.

As to the reason for the questioned phenomenon, since "of Peter's" is more informal and not standard, presumably it is caused by either grammatical assimilation just like the pronoun version, or it is by analogy -with- the pronoun version.

share|improve this answer
    
Assuming grammatical is the same as linguistic assimilation, it's a phonological process affected by the following word. Irrelevant here. I doubt analogy is involved - more like the same underlying principle causing his in the first place also causes Peter's sometimes. –  FumbleFingers Dec 14 '11 at 2:31
add comment

My guess would be that the friend of mine/his/ours constructions are simply idioms. Pronouns are far more restricted in their occurrences than are nouns, and occur in far more idioms than any noun can, just because Pronouns are a closed class. Pronouns have to fit the slots we need them for.

For instance, if you used of him or of them, you'd virtually have to contract either one in speech to "of'em", and the idiom requires a secondary stress on the preposition object, which contracting would lose. So friend of him doesn't sound right. So it's wrong.

As for NP vs NP's -- I have a vague supposition that logic may be winning this one. I'd like to have a dollar for every time somebody's asked me why we say friend of Bill's, when the possessive means the same as of, and we normally use an objective pronoun. There's no reason, I have to tell them; we just do. But people make up their own mind in the long run, and I think that intuition, which has occurred to every English speaker, may be telling. Especially in writing.

In speech, I would bet the proportions of friend of Jane's are higher than they are in the N-Gram. Writing, as we all know, falutes much higher than speech, and includes lots more strange stuff, so this is just more. Talking, on the other hand, is not rehearsed or organized in the same ways as writing, and is often more fond of familiar phrases than of clarity.

share|improve this answer
    
I don't quite buy the idea that there's any pressure to use a contraction with of him/them. To the extent that people do speak loosely, they're just as likely to say "friend of 'is" anyway. As to the rest, I think you're right that logically the possessive is superfluous - maybe we use it with pronouns because they're more informal and more closely associated with speech in the first place. We often say things twice for emphasis anyway, and such common usages might quickly become firmly established because we say/hear them so often. –  FumbleFingers Dec 4 '11 at 22:57
add comment

of peter is a prepositional phrase, and therefore can function as its own adjective, modifying friend.

When you risk ambiguity, you might be better off saying Peter's friend.

The purpose of possessive pronouns and possessive determiners are to preserve the clarity. In the hyperlinked example, there is ambiguity: Mechanically speaking, the narrator is "not inclined to support Newt Gingrich's having served" but I doubt this is what the author meant.

So when deciding whether to use an apostrophe, just remember how it is affecting the word's part of speech, and therefore available uses. Friend of America has the prepositional phrase acting as an adjective. Friend of Peter's is a bit tacky and would be better off expressed as Peter's friend, in my opinion.

share|improve this answer
    
There isn't actually any ambiguity in the linked example, nor am I sure there ever could be in such constructions. It's just that you have to parse some quite long cumbersome phrasing after the possessive to be sure what it's applying to. I have no opinion on which of Friend of Peter, Friend of Peter's, or Peter's friend is "better", though I agree with John that logically speaking the apostrophe is superfluous in the presence of "of". I guess we do it to mimic the possessive forms we use for pronouns, but then the question is "why do we say of mine, not of me?" –  FumbleFingers Dec 4 '11 at 23:08
1  
Referring on and relying on "the word's part of speech" is not the best way to talk about English syntax. For one thing, English has more than 8 parts of speech; for another, most English words can belong to just about any part of speech and aren't marked for it; finally, syntax is not about "parts of speech", but rather about constructions, their requirements and affordances. –  John Lawler Dec 5 '11 at 3:50
    
For a look beyond the 'parts of speech' at the variety of English possessive/genitive constructions It might be helpful to take a look at the wiki articles on the genitive case, the genitive construction and the Saxon genitive. –  Mark Beadles Jan 17 '12 at 3:21
    
@JohnLawler That comment deserves to be an FAQ entry. –  Mark Beadles Jan 17 '12 at 3:21
add comment

Although it is grammatically redundant to use a possessive pronoun, since 'of' indicates possession, the phrase functions as an idiom. Using 'friend of mine' instead of 'my friend' implies colloquial endearment, affection, or closeness:

I'd like you to meet Tom; he's a good friend of mine.

is slightly more endearing and informal than

I'd like you to meet my good friend Tom.

share|improve this answer
    
I don't see that possible differences in the connotations of friend of mine and my friend have any bearing on why we don't normally say friend of me even though in principle it's more "logical". Sometimes we do though - not all the usages in that link match the one under consideration, but many do. –  FumbleFingers Dec 5 '11 at 4:50
    
Redundancy in grammar is a feature, not a bug. –  Mark Beadles Jan 14 '12 at 17:07
    
I don't think this answer deserves a negative score. The "bottom line" of this answer is the same as John Lawler's: that the phrase in question is an idiom. The other elements of this answer (logical redundancy of the double possessive, apparent difference in level of formality) are also found in other answers given. At worst, this is a hum-drum, harmless answer that should be left alone rather than penalized. –  John Y Jan 15 '12 at 4:21
    
@John Y: I didn't downvote, but I don't disagree with whoever did. The reference to "idiom" is irrelevant. Effectively, Kevin asserts that friend of mine conveys greater "warmth of feeling" than my friend. I don't accept this, and I don't see why anyone else of like mind shouldn't downvote the assertion. –  FumbleFingers Jan 16 '12 at 19:30
add comment

I had always imagined that the evolution of this originated in a slightly different meaning of of. If you interpret of in the sense of out of or among, then you can think of a friend of his/Peter's as a shorter form of a friend out of all of his/Peter's friends. Note that you are much less likely to say the friend of Peter's unless it is by contrast to some other group: the friend [I'm speaking of who is] among Peter's [friends] [rather than among John's].

Can anyone back up this interpretation with evidence in English or a Germanic precursors?

share|improve this answer
add comment

I can say that double possessive is neither idiomatic nor conscious / unconscious personal choice. This might be the answer to your question "Why we often add 's in forms like friend of Peter's".

In terms of syntax, the "s" in "friend of Peter's" is named "predicate possessive" and helps semantic interpretation with lexical information. Let's compare:

John's brother 
A brother of John's

From "John's brother" we can only infer "genitive relation" or "possession", whereas "A brother of John's" will give us more information e.g John has some more brothers.

But sometimes this type of construction might be elliptical.

That country was once Mary’s

may allow a reading equivalent to "That country was once Mary’s country"" e.g citizenship, homeland relation – that was her home country until she emigrated.

For more details:

Partee, Barbara H., and Borschev, Vladimir. 2003. Genitives, relational nouns, and argument modifier ambiguity. In Modifying Adjuncts, eds. E. Lang, C. Maienborn and C. Fabricius-Hansen, 67-112. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Partee, Barbara H., and Borschev, Vladimir. 2001. Some puzzles of predicate possessives. In Perspectives on Semantics, Pragmatics and Discourse. A Festschrift for Ferenc Kiefer

share|improve this answer
    
I think you're right that the double possessive normally implies there are other friends/brothers/whatever besides the one being referenced at the time. @ThePopMachine has arrived at that position by different reasoning, but I'm afraid this heart of mine kinda puts the kibosh on there being a particularly strong rule in play there. –  FumbleFingers Jan 15 '12 at 14:43
add comment

protected by tchrist Jul 1 at 0:53

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.