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Why is it usually “friend of his”, but no possessive apostrophe with “friend of Peter”?

We built an engine for the boat of Mr. Sander


We built an engine for the boat of Mr Sander's


marked as duplicate by tchrist, FumbleFingers, user11550, James Waldby - jwpat7, MetaEd Aug 19 '12 at 1:21

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    @FumbleFingers: I don't think it's a duplicate. I think friend works differently from most nouns. Consider painting. "A painting of Mr. Sander's" is something quite different than "a painting of Mr. Sander", while "a friend of Mr. Sander's" is essentially the same thing as "a friend of Mr. Sander", and "a boat of Mr. Sander" is just wrong. – Peter Shor Aug 18 '12 at 16:47
  • @Peter Shor: It seems to me it's the same with "brother", where you'll hear "I'm a brother of Peter" with or without the possessive apostrophe. Or how about "I don't like this greediness of his"? The "doubled up possessive" seems to occur all over the place. – FumbleFingers Aug 18 '12 at 16:59
  • I believe the "doubled up possessive" is the standard way of putting the possessive after the noun. There's only a subclass of nouns that let you do it both ways (e.g. brother, niece, friend, enemy, protege). – Peter Shor Aug 18 '12 at 17:01
  • @Peter Shor: I believe usage in this whole area is "grey". What about "this softness of hers"? I suspect your "subclass of nouns" actually just means "nouns whose meaning is closely associated with interrelationships", which causes them to occur more often in contexts where one or more "possessive" indicators is also likely to occur. – FumbleFingers Aug 18 '12 at 17:19
  • @FumbleFingers: To me, "this greediness of his" and "this softness of hers" are greatly preferable to "this softness of her", which I'd consider ungrammatical. Are there any nouns which you can't use the doubled possessive for? – Peter Shor Aug 18 '12 at 17:21

If you had to choose one of them, you should say "the boat of Mr. Sander's". But I don't think you should use either in contemporary English. I would say

a boat of Mr. Sander's,
this boat of Mr. Sander's,

but not

*the boat of Mr. Sander's.

As was noted in the comments, it is much better to use "Mr. Sander's boat."

Why is this? I suspect because "Mr. Sander's boat" already implies that Mr. Sanders owns only one boat, so this phrasing is shorter and simpler and means the same thing. If you want to replace "a boat of Mr. Sander's" using a possessive before the noun, you need to say "one of Mr. Sander's boats", which is longer than "a boat of Mr. Sander's"; both are fine in contemporary English.

If you use the indefinite article, it's clear (to me) that you should say "a boat of Mr. Sander's" and not *"a boat of Mr. Sander".

And if you use a different noun, you see that "a painting of Mr. Sander" and "a painting of Mr. Sander's" are both grammatical, but mean quite different things.


As many people have commented, the simplest is:

Mr. Sander's boat

...and probably, the most preferred form.

Saying "the boat of Mr. Sander('s)" has the same usage as the Partitive case, where the boat is composed of Mr. Sander(s) in the same what that it can be composed of idiots (a ship of fools). Those less-skillful with the language will have a harder time distinguishing the two forms.

In this latter example, few people would interpret this as a Genitive case (a boat belonging to fools) rather than the Partitive case (a boat constituted of fools).

In your original examples:

We built an engine for the boat of Mr. Sander.

works just as well (or the best) since you need not use the genitive construction of "Mr. Sander" because "of" shows possession.

I think most people would find this a formal usage, where Mr. Sander is a man of some recognition.

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