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I want to talk about a specific woman. She is the wife of one of my cousins. So I have several cousins, but not each of them has a wife, and those who have one obviously only have one.

Can I say "one of my cousins' wife"? In which "one of" refers to "one cousin amongst the group of several men who are my cousins"?

If I pronounce this sentence, people can hear "one of my cousin's wife", and then there is a mistake because I say "wife" instead of "wives", as they understand that one cousin has several wives.

So could I write "one of my cousins' wife" or "one of my cousins's wife"? Or should I just give up and switch to "the wife of one of my cousins"? I can say it differently but I'm very interested in knowing what could be possible. Thank you!

  • My head hurts. I think in speech most people would say what you're saying (all of it), get in a muddle, be misunderstood, and spend another five sentences trying to explain what they really meant. Or, if they were prescient enough, they'd phrase it differently right from the start. – Mynamite Jul 29 '14 at 22:48
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    The wife of one of my cousins. – bib Jul 30 '14 at 0:01
  • The way English possessives work, there are only two commonly-used possibilities: "one of my cousin's wives" (my cousin has several wives, and I'm talking about one of them) and "one of my cousins' wives" (I have more than one cousin, more than one of them has a wife, and I'm talking about one of these wives). Distinguishable in writing, but they sound exactly the same. – Peter Shor Aug 4 '14 at 16:37
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There are times when the result of trying to get things correct sounds awkward. This is one of them. Take the coward's way out, write around it, and say "the wife of one of my cousins" and forget the rest of it. PaulB.

  • Welcome to EL&U. While your advice is valid, it does not directly answer the original question; I encourage you to take the site tour and visit the help center to become better acquainted with the practices on this site, which is not a traditional discussion forum. – choster Jul 30 '14 at 1:18
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I'm afraid you're leaving out the last crucial step in your reasoning.

Yes, if you say "one of my cousins' wife", people might parse it as "one of my cousin's wife", and see that it makes no sense because it should be "wives". So precisely because of that what will happen next is they will go back and reparse, and arrive at the meaning you're after.

In other words, this is just yet another garden-path sentence. Nothing unusual. At the same time, unlike many garden-path sentences, it is only a garden-path sentence in speech. In writing, there is no confusion whatsoever. There are two possible parsings of ['wʌnəvmaɪ'kʌzənz], but there is only one possible parsing of "one of my cousins'".

And no, under no circumstances ever do you say "cats'" and then write it down as "cats's". That just makes no sense at all. And again, in this particular case it makes even less sense still, as the written form is not ambiguous to begin with, so not only would you be mutilating the language, but you'd be mutilating it to solve a problem that is simply not there.

In speech, yes, you are welcome to reword if you wish. Just like with any garden-path sentence. You can say "the wife of one of my cousins" and be done. But like with any garden-path sentence, or really with any sentence at all, ambiguity is not ungrammatical, merely ambiguous. So just because you can resolve it, does not mean you absolutely have to.

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    My intuitive feeling is that constructions like "one of my neighbors' car", "one of my brothers' dog", "one of my children's toy are very rarely used by native speakers. – Peter Shor Aug 4 '14 at 14:46
  • As a check, I looked through the first five or so pages of Google Books results for "one of my children's", and the only instance I found of this usage was in a linguistics article discussing whether it was grammatical. – Peter Shor Aug 4 '14 at 15:14
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Can't you just say 'my cousin's wife'? This seems to solve all the issues, and I don't see it mentioned above. :)

One comment mentioned that there's no reason to change it, because when written, it is correct.

I disagree. I think if it sounds incorrect, and people are confused, it can make you sound unintelligent. So I would definitely change it.

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In general, you don't want to use the possessive on any word but the actual possessor. The wife, in your example, belongs to the one not to the cousins but to the one.

Good: the big fluffy white dog's puppies
Bad: one of my cousins' wife
Good: the wife of one of my cousins
Dubious: the court martial's president

  • While I agree for this instance, this advice is much too broad; "the Queen of England's letters" is a perfectly good English possessive. And the reason "the court martial's president" is dubious is the same reason "the committee's chairman" is dubious; there is nothing wrong with "the court martial's verdict". – Peter Shor Aug 4 '14 at 15:22
  • @PeterShor - I didn't realize England's letters had a queen. I don't see what's wrong with "the committee's chairman" (unless you are saying there is something wrong with saying a group "possesses" a member). I don't like the court martial's verdict for the simple reason it isn't the martial's verdict, it's the court's verdict. – Malvolio Aug 4 '14 at 16:21
  • In terms of usage, Google finds two results for "letters of the Queen of England", both apparently written by Italians, and twenty-three for "the Queen of England's letters". There's nothing wrong with "the committee's chairman" or "the court martial's president", but people usually say "the chairman of the committee" and "the president of the court martial". Why? I don't know. – Peter Shor Aug 4 '14 at 16:47
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I believe by saying, "one of my cousins' wife" is ambiguous and just sounds awkward. I agree with Paul Bennett; just rephrase it to, "the wife of one of my cousins."

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protected by user140086 May 5 '16 at 3:35

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