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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.

  • 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
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    Reminds me of my wife and I's seafood collaboration dinner. – RegDwigнt Nov 13 '10 at 9:05
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    "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
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    "A time when I studied linguistics, I tried to write a paper upon this funny gap." – Jon Purdy Nov 14 '10 at 9:16
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    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
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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.

  • Is this an off-chart's level of mean? – Lambie May 12 '18 at 18:45
  • I don't understand. Can you rephrase the question? – Daniel Harbour May 21 '18 at 11:03
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I think you've already said most of what's to be said about this, aside from the obvious fact that these pronouns have their own possessive forms.

I think this is related to a phenomenon called blocking, whereby we avoid creating regular forms when there is an irregular form available. In your examples, of course, the irregular form isn't actually available — we can't say *"you and my picture" — but such situations are not unheard of.

For example, consider the verb stride. It has an irregular past tense, strode . . . and basically no past participle. I assume that if it weren't for the irregular past tense, then the past participle would just be *strided; but strode seems to have somehow blocked that option, leaving an odd gap. (Quite a few dictionaries claim that the past participle is stridden — compare drive/drove/driven, write/wrote/written, ride/rode/ridden, rise/rose/risen — but in fact stridden is vanishingly rare, as are all likely alternatives.) (This has been remarked upon many times independently; see "When you stride away, what is it that you've done?" on Language Log.)

It can be hard to predict what will and won't be blocked, and it may vary from speaker to speaker. You give ?"the gift I gave to them's receipt" as one of your ungrammatical examples, but I don't find that to be much less acceptable than ?"the gift's receipt". I find something like "One of them liked us, but the rest hated us, and the one who liked us's wife was one of the worst" (made-up example) to be pretty acceptable, at least in speech.

For a better-studied case where different speakers differ in terms of blocking, consider the baseball jargon phrase fly out. In baseball, a "fly-out" is when the batter successfully hits the ball, and hits it high, but someone from the other team manages to catch the ball on its way down, knocking the batter out of the inning. [link] This phrase is often verbed — so, "to fly out" means to hit a fly ball but then become out because someone caught it — raising the question of what past tense and past participle to use. Some linguists have argued that native speakers will naturally use the regular form, flied out, because this clearly isn't the ordinary verb fly. (This case is made in a 1992 paper, "Why no mere mortal has ever flown out to center field".) However, the data are actually ambiguous; many native speakers do prefer flew out and flown out. (This point is made in a 1993 response, "Why no mere mortal has ever flown out to center field but people often say they do".) In fact, it seems that nowadays the "flew out" version has almost completely won out: "flew out to left field" gets thousands of Google hits, whereas "flied out to left field" gets only nine.

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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

Next:

*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

Finally:

*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
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    Your answer is "all of our friend", which I don't think makes sense. – ShreevatsaR Nov 15 '10 at 11:00
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"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."

  • 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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*the gift I gave to them's receipt... How about "The receipt of the gift I gave to them"?

As for "All of our friend" or "A friend of all of us"... I believe this should just be "Our friend"...

If you wanted to be more specific, you might say "A friend to all of us" or "A friend to us all."

protected by tchrist May 10 '18 at 0:02

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