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I recently found myself about to write "David, using a metaphor of Saul's, said...", with the intended meaning that Saul had coined the metaphor (rather than it being a metaphor involving Saul in some way).

As a native speaker of English (though not necessarily the Queen's) this came naturally to me, but then I had my doubts as to whether it is regarded as grammatically correct, and even if so, whether it would seem awkward to most readers.

In looking for examples and discussion of the issue, I found this:

“It’s an academic book,” Wolf said. “I’d like to think that a general reader could read it kind of encyclopedically. You know, they go to see a play of Shakespeare’s and what is ‘Hamlet’ really about? That kind of thing."

This, however, is a direct quote of a spoken sentence, so I remain unsure as to whether this usage should be avoided other than in spoken English or in quoting someone's words.

Note that here, I am primarily interested in the grammatical and style take on this form of construction, rather than looking for alternative ways of phrasing it - I can do that myself - and nor am I seeking advice, though doubtless well-meaning, amounting to "I'm not sure, so you should avoid it", but by all means offer alternatives if they help illustrate your answer.

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    Your question will likely be redirected to something about "double genitives". Summary: They are truly nothing to worry about. Aug 1, 2021 at 3:31
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    @TinfoilHat This is everything I could hope for in an answer! I would be happy to accept it if posted as such.
    – sdenham
    Aug 1, 2021 at 3:45
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    It's the named third person version of the first person possessive pronoun form used in "James is a friend of mine." Which is so common as to be completely unremarkable. Nothing wrong with it at all.
    – BoldBen
    Aug 1, 2021 at 10:21

1 Answer 1

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Your sentence is much better off as you started, though I would personally prefer not to separate the subject from the verb by too many words:

David, using a metaphor of Saul's, said...

or

Using a metaphor of Saul's, David said...

This double genitive here is very useful to avoid ambiguity. Although the idiomatic phrase is metaphor for something, many do use metaphor of in this sense. Even Wikipedia does:

Whitman's O Captain! My Captain! uses the extended metaphor of Abraham Lincoln as the captain of the 'ship' that is the United States of America.

So if you say, using a metaphor of Saul, those who are used to saying metaphor of might mistake it as meaning a metaphor, an image, a symbol for Saul, and not a metaphor that belonged to Saul.

M-W explains:

The double possessive, usually using both of and 's to demonstrate possession, is grammatical. While it is sometimes unnecessary, it can be helpful for differentiating when the possessive (or genitive) case is about association or ownership, such as in

a picture of my friend

vs.

a picture of my friend's.

This kind of construction, known as the double possessive, or double genitive, dates back to Chaucer's time, and mostly gets used without being remarked upon by native speakers. There are, however, people who will tell you to avoid it.

It's true, if there is no ambiguity, the double possessive is definitely redundant. BUT:

The possessive, or genitive, case isn't just about possession; it can also show that someone or something controls or is associated with someone or something else. The double possessive, or double genitive, serves to separate the possessive genitive from other functions of the genitive. "A dream of Mabel" can demonstrate the genitive of association [a dream someone had of Mabel], but "a dream of Mabel's" ensures that it's the genitive of possession at work [a dream Mabel herself had].

As a final addition, not so relevant to your question, I will quote a detail that M-W draws attention to in a way that manages to put a smile on your face while at the same time pointing once again to what I might call with admiration the indocility of this fascinating language to fixed grammar rules:

Showing possession with of is normally used when it is a thing that has possession, rather than a person or animal having possession. The double possessive/double genitive, however, throws that out the window. We can say "a dream of Mabel's," but we cannot say *"the winner of the contest's." It turns out that English only lets people and animals be doubly possessive, and insists that they use of to do so. Don't blame us. We're only the messenger.

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  • Thanks - this is far more informative than I hoped for. Initially, however, I was confused by "Your sentence is much better off as you started..." as I could not figure out what it was being compared to: I only present one version, which is identical to what seems to be your first alternative phrasing. After having read your whole reply, however, I take it you mean that it is better than "David, using a metaphor of/for Saul..." (without the apostrophe s.) Until your reply, I did not realize that I had not made it clear what I meant here (a metaphor coined by Saul, not about him.)
    – sdenham
    Aug 2, 2021 at 14:11
  • Yes, I seemed to understand from the OP that you were hesitating between "a metaphor of Saul's" and "a metaphor of Saul". If you weren't, then my mistake. I don't think that this detail would alter my answer though :-)
    – fev
    Aug 2, 2021 at 14:18
  • Thank you for posting this very helpful reply before some mod decided it was a duplicate of another question. As I had not heard of double possessives before, I would not have realized that question had any relevance, and the only answer there suggests that my phrase here should be read as "a metaphor of Saul's metaphor", which makes no sense. Ironically, this is itself flagged as a duplicate, and the question it is allegedly a duplicate of is unrecognizable, IMHO, as a duplicate of mine. Why do mods think that if two questions have the same answer, they are the same question? 2+2 vs. -i*i*4?
    – sdenham
    Aug 2, 2021 at 23:44
  • Well, I can tell you that it is not the mods who have closed your question as a duplicate but other users like you who have enough reputation to close questions. If you want your question to be reopened, you can do so on ELU Meta. Many questions were reopened that way. Just make sure that it is really not a duplicate and explain why you think your question should not remain closed.
    – fev
    Aug 3, 2021 at 7:10
  • But before you go on meta, take the time to read this it's really interesting.
    – fev
    Aug 3, 2021 at 7:13

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