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How do I say (a friend of Bob’s)’s house?

It’s like a double possesive. Bob’s friends are a class of people. Tom, a friend of Bob’s denotes that he is one among Bob’s friends.

Now what if I want to specify the friend’s name is Tom?

Which of these (if any) applies:

  1. I went to a friend of Bob’s, Tom’s, house.
  2. I went to a friend of Bob’s’, Tom's, house.
  3. I went to a friend of Bobs’s, Tom’s, house?

What’s the correct punctuation and such?

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    Bob's friend's house... – Jake Regier Jul 26 '15 at 1:01
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    I would be very likely to say (but not to write) a friend of Bob's's house. – phoog Jul 26 '15 at 5:23
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    Bob's friend Tom's house. – choster Jul 26 '15 at 20:16
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"a friend of Bob's" means "one of Bob's friends". Therefore, you can say

"I've been to Tom's, one of Bob's friends.

/or/

I've been to Tom's, a friend of Bob's.

You can omit the word "house". It's implicit.

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There are two ways that English indicates the possessive -- with the preposition "of" (A friend of Bob) or with "'s" (Bob's friend). The latter is called the Saxon genitive, because that's the way that Anglo-Saxon (Old English) inflected some nouns to indicate the genitive case. Cyning means king in Old English, and cyniges means the king's or of the king.

English not only kept both possessives but uses them together, which seems somewhat redundant, but which has been around for a long time. You'll find some learned wrangling about how far back the practice goes, but it shows up in The Canterbury Tales ca 1390.

Oon maximus, that was an officer
Of the prefectes, and his corniculer,

One Maximus, who was an officer of the prefect's, and his aide,

This is often called the "double genitive" although The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language will sniff at you for using this term, preferring "oblique genitive" because there is only one possessive sense.

Let's suppose that Tom is the friend and he owns a house. It may be tempting to pile more genitives on a double genitive:

a friend of Bob's house

But this is problematic because the Saxon genitive is attached to a noun, not to a phrase. What you're trying to say is

(a friend of Bob)'s house

that is

Tom's house

You'll likely be understood, but any more and you'll soon lose yourself and your reader (or listener) in the chain of possession. And things only get worse if there are multiple friends and multiple houses. Note that this is not a danger for "of":

The perfume of the flowers of the garden of the house of a friend of Bob.

The double possessive finds it use not in extended chains but to resolve an ambiguity. Take the sentence

I took Bob's picture.

Are you a photographer or a thief? For the former, you say

I took a picture of Bob.

If the latter,

I took a picture of Bob's.

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  • But the 's is not the Saxon genitive, it is the modern English clitic. People think nothing of saying "the woman with the red jacket's car is parked illegally," where the s attaches to the phrase the woman with the red jacket. Nobody in their right mind would say "the woman's with the red jacket car..." – phoog Jul 26 '15 at 5:28
  • @phoog You think that It's not the Saxon genitive because we're not speaking Anglo-Saxon? Do you think it's not French leave unless we cross the French border? People say a lot of things without thinking. For instance the comment about "the woman's with." Of course nobody says that because you can't attach a prepositional phrase to a possessive. Did you think I was proposing that people do that? – deadrat Jul 26 '15 at 5:43
  • I think it's not the Saxon genitive because it does not function as the Saxon genitive did. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genitive_case#English. In other words, it is not the Saxon genitive precisely because it applies to phrases, not words. – phoog Jul 26 '15 at 6:07
  • @phoog Freud reported that a surgeon of his acquaintance objected to the psychological term "hysteria" because it could be applied to males, and the word "hysteria" came from the Greek word for "womb." Clear yet? – deadrat Jul 26 '15 at 7:43
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    @phoog Possessives formed with the clitic ’s in (modern) English are traditionally known as the Saxon genitive, despite the fact that they are obviously quite different, both syntactically and morphologically, from actual genitives in Saxon. You are quite right, though, that the statement “But this is problematic because the Saxon genitive applies to nouns, not phrases” is incorrect. The Saxon genitive never applies to nouns as such, but always to noun phrases. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 26 '15 at 12:57
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There is no correct way to write this using apostrophes to signify the possessive. You would have to say:

I went to the house of a friend of Bob.

or

I went to the house of Tom, a friend of Bob.

or

I went to the house of the brother of one of Bob's friends.

As in many cases, you can determine the rule by taking the example to the extreme. In the last example above, how would you write it with apostrophes?

I went to one of Bob's friends' brother's house.

Utter confusion! Does the one refer to the friend, or the house? Should it be houses ?

This is why you should keep the object of the verb close to the verb, and eschew nesting the possessive apostrophe.

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