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Isn't this sentence:

He stole the singer of that band's wife.

a wrong attempt at saying:

He stole the wife of that band's singer.

Someone pointed this out:

The <singer of the band>'s wife is the wife of the <singer of the band>. The wife of the <singer of the band> is the wife of the <band's singer>.

Apostrophes aren't that hard.

I guess my question is - can you place an 's targeting a previous, but not necessarily the last word in a sentence?

Thanks.

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  • Constructing a sentence like the first one can lead to an ambiguous meaning. Actually, disregard my comment, they both have the potential to be ambiguous. – Zebrafish Mar 24 '18 at 8:21
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    @Zebrafish This becomes a grey area; 'acceptability' isn't just defined in terms of conforming or not to general grammatical rules in what would appear a logical way, but also in terms of idiomaticity and pragmatics. 'He stole the singer of that band's wife.' arguably contravenes Grice's maxim of manner (one avoids obscurity and ambiguity) and certainly sounds very clumsy. I believe an earlier treatment on ELU said that its grammaticality is dubious. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 24 '18 at 8:26
  • @EdwinAshworth I think you are correct. Would you like to write an answer, please? – Nikolay Tsenkov Mar 24 '18 at 13:23
  • The first one sounds, to me, as though he stole the wife's sewing machine or collectable British car. – BoldBen Mar 24 '18 at 14:26
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The structure is not incorrect. But this particular example is confusing, and therefore most people would prefer not to use it.

A typical example of the way the genitive marker -'(s) can be used with phrases in English is "the queen of England's", as in "the queen of England's promises", which means "the promises of the queen of England" and not "the queen of the promises of England". The way to think of this is not that the -'(s) is "targeting a previous, but not necessarily the last word in a sentence", but rather than the -'(s) is attaching to a directly preceding multi-word noun phrase: "the queen of England's promises" has the structure "[the queen of England]'s promises".

However, this works partly because people are used to thinking of the noun phrase "the queen of England" as a unit.

The phrase "the singer of that band" is not so familar, so people will be trying to process it "on the fly". This makes your first sentence, "He stole the singer of that band's wife," a "garden path" sentence—the reader initially sees "He stole the singer..." and thinks that the sentence will be about stealing some kind of singer, and then to get the intended structure "He stole [the singer of that band]'s wife," the reader has to re-evaluate the sentence after getting to the last word. As you and others have said, the effect is to cause some people to think confusedly "What does 'that band's wife' mean?"

"The wife of the singer of that band" or "The wife of that band's singer" is not prone to causing the same confusion; even "that band's singer's wife" would be less confusing than "the singer of that band's wife".

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No, the wife was not the wife of the band. She was the wife of one of the band members. Better I would suggest 'wife of the band's vocalist'.

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