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...

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    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. Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 15:56
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    @Peter: I certainly agree that "friend of the Pope" could mean "well-disposed to the Catholic Church" just as much as a reference to a warm personal relationship with the actual man in that office at any given time. The question is - what is it about the different "referents" that make shift our preference for the double possessive? I'm no statistician, but it seems clear to me there is such a shift. There's obviously not a "hard-and-fast" rule, but I'm convinced there's something influencing our choices - at least "on average". Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 16:23
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    Your N-gram counts for "friend of Peter" vs "friend of Peter's" are misleading. They fail to account for "friend of Peter Lastname". Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 20:09
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    In addition, it fails to account for "friend of Peter's wife" vs. "friend of Peter". So I think the Ngrams may be of less use in this particular case. Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 20:26
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    "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
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 2:45

10 Answers 10


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. ;-)

  • 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! Commented Jan 19, 2012 at 23:07
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    This answer is certainly creative. There is no evidence for it, and plenty of evidence against it, but it's certainly a creative "just-so story". As even Ed says, it doesn't explain "supporter" at all, for example. Commented Jan 25, 2012 at 18:31
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    This is just unsubstantiated drivel which should neither be upvoted nor accepted. Joe is an employee of Peter. Joe is an employee or Peter's. You can't imply there's some difference between the meaning except perhaps something subtle. The answerer is just making up his own interpretation and others are supporting if for no reason. Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 17:11
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    They aren't the inverse of each other. You just have your own personal head-canon. I wouldn't care but this seems to have gotten way more attention than a bunch of other more informative and accurate answers. Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 20:20
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    Back again. You don't address 'friend of his'. Or, dare one suggest, 'friend of him'. Commented May 5, 2020 at 18:29

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.

  • 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. Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 18:02
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    ...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. Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 18:03
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    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. Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 20:18
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    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. Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 21:09
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    "A wish of the King" is descriptive of the wish. It's weird to think of the King possessing his wishes in some sense. So no apostrophe. And "seal of the King" should be "Seal of the King" - it's a title. It's also singular.
    – Ed Staub
    Commented Jan 31, 2012 at 15:30

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.

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    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 Commented Dec 5, 2011 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. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 15:24
  • @FumbleFingers: I was merely responding to your dislike of 'the possessive in relation to things like countries'. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 15:26
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    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. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 15:38
  • This doesn't address the double possessive issue OP mentions. That’s one of Greece’s problems vs That’s a problem of Greece’s. Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 10:54

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.

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    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. Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 22:57

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

One says

to him


of his

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

One says

to Peter


of Peter


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.

  • 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. Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 2:31
  • The claim that "of" "takes the possessive, with pronouns" is untrue, as any Googling for "of me", "of him", "of us" & "of them" will show. "A friend of mine" doesn't mean "my friend"; it is partitive as other answerers have pointed out.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 10:05

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 Germanic precursors?

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    After going through a mound of these threads across ELU, this is still the interpretation I personally favor. It doesn't explain why we feel quite okay with leaving the 's off in certain awkward cases (such as when the person's name ends in s already), but otherwise seems to make the most sense, especially when applied to cases like "painting of the King vs painting of the King's". Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 17:53

I tried to verify the premise, but at least from Google's corpus I couldn't confirm it with "friend of Peter." vs. "friend of Peter's." In the British corpus, there isn't a single instance of the former. In the American corpus both are represented, but "friend of Peter's" is still slightly more common.

The Saxon genitive was once a proper case in English. Nowadays it is a possessive clitic, as witnessed by the fact that you can add it to an entire phrase at once rather than inflecting each constitutent separately. As a possessive clitic, it doesn't really make sense in this idiom, so it's natural for it to disappear. Apparently this process has started at least in the US. If it has also started in the UK, then this hasn't reached edited books yet.

Personal pronouns are much more conservative, as witnessed by the fact that English still distinguishes three cases in its personal pronouns long after they have disappeared everywhere else. This is because phrases such as friend of mine are so extremely common that they are barely subject to regularisation. (It happens relatively quickly that a new generation has different grammatical theories. But specific common phrases don't change as quickly. We still use almost obsolete grammar in common phrases such as "little did I know", "far be it from me" and even "know thyself".) This may actually happen at some point in the future, but I would guess that a complete disappearance of "friend of Peter's" is required as a precondition for this event. This will probably take a while.

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    Well, there's certainly a difference between picture of me and picture of mine, and that difference is never likely to disappear. And I could buy into the idea that "I'm a friend of him" correlates more closely to "I'm a friend to him" than to "I'm a friend of his" (i.e. - "I befriend him", rather than "He befriends me"). Commented Jul 31, 2014 at 14:10

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.

  • 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. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 4:50
  • Redundancy in grammar is a feature, not a bug. Commented Jan 14, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 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. Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 19:30

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.

  • 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?" Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 23:08
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    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. Commented Dec 5, 2011 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. Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 3:21
  • @JohnLawler That comment deserves to be an FAQ entry. Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 3:21

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

  • 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. Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 14:43

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