An English teacher made a comment on my usage of the phrase, "Our last week's meeting", saying that it should be, "last week's meeting", is there a rule for this?
I've answered essentially the same question over at english.stackexchange.com: Why is “our today's meeting” wrong?
Usually, a noun phrase in English must have exactly one determiner: you can say "I drove this car" or "I drove my car", but not "I drove car" or "I drove this my car".
Certain nouns (such as plural nouns and proper nouns) don't need determiners: "I love bees", "I love milk", "I love Paris", "I love biology". But it's never acceptable for a noun phrase to have more than one determiner (with possible extremely rare exceptions).
"Our last week's meeting" is unacceptable because the noun phrase "meeting" has two determiners, "our" and "last week's". It would also be unacceptable to say "the today's meeting" or "our the meeting".
Here are some phrases which may seem to have multiple determiners, but don't actually:
- your father's home - this noun phrase has only one determiner, namely, "your father's". Meanwhile, the phrase "your father" is also a noun phrase which only has one determiner, namely, "your".
- the brass men's wristwatches - the determiner of this noun phrase is "the", and "brass" and "men's" are adjectives.
- an old people's home - the determiner of this noun phrase is "an". The phrase "old people's home" is an idiom which acts as a simple noun, even though it looks like it contains a determiner.
There isn't a rule that you can't use two possessives, but they don't indicate possession of the noun at the end, but instead each one modifies the next phrase.
Our last week's meeting
Is naturally read as
(Our last week)'s meeting
So, unless you are talking about meeting someone with in the week before you both die, it is unlikely to mean what you intend.
Multiple possessives tend to combine left to right, so
your mother's old uncle's shepherds pie
Is the pie of a type associated with shepherds belonging to the old uncle of your mother.
(((your mother)'s old uncle)'s (shepherds pie)
It doesn't mean that there is an old pie which belongs to you, your mother, an uncle and a number of shepherds all at the same time!
The example of course proves the rule - 'shepherds pie' is an idiomatic noun phrase so doesn't combine.
Our last week's meeting
is a little akward, but I for one do not think that it is incorrect.
The answer by Tanner Swett says "it's never acceptable for a noun phrase to have more than one determiner." However, the Wikipedia article lists eight different "common" cases where multiple determiners are acceptable. Specifically:
- A definite determiner can be followed by certain quantifiers (the many problems, these three things, my very few faults).
- The words all and both can be followed by a definite determiner (all the green apples, both the boys), which can also be followed by a quantifier as above (all the many outstanding issues).
- The word all can be followed by a cardinal number (all three things).
- The word some can be followed by a cardinal number (some eight packets, meaning "approximately eight").
- Words and phrases expressing fractions and multiples, such as half, double, twice, three times, etc. can be followed by a definite determiner: half a minute, double the risk, twice my age, three times my salary, three-quarters the diameter, etc.
- The words such and exclamative-what can be followed by an indefinite article (as mentioned in the section above).
- The word many can be used with the indefinite article and a singular noun (many a night, many an awkward moment).
- The words each and every can be followed by a cardinal number or other expression of definite quantity (each two seats, every five grams of flour).
As with other parts of speech, it is often possible to connect determiners of the same type with the conjunctions and and or: his and her children, two or three beans.
The same answer says that "I drove this my car" is wrong. The form "this" followed by a possessive is now rare, but was once more common, especially in formal writing. In particular sentences such as:
It is a mistake to regard aspects of this our present society as unchangeable rules.
were sufficiently common to be a style marker in the writings of the late Robert A Heinlein.
Since the question title asks about using "two possessives in a row", this can certainly be proper.
- This was John's father's watch.
- This was King Mark's wife's cousin's castle.
are both quite correct.
You can use two possessives in a row, that is not an issue. For example, if I have a cat, and my cat has a toy, I can say "my cat's toy." If there is a manufacturer for that toy, it would be somewhat acceptable, although convoluted, to say "my cat's toy's manufacturer," which would be three possessives in a row. If that manufacturer had subsidiaries, it would be much harder to follow, but you could probably still say "my cat's toy's manufacturer's subsidiaries." Though, with four possessives in a row, we'd probably rearrange the sentence structure to break them up some.
In English, we would commonly say "last week's meeting," or perhaps "our meeting last week." We don't put an "our" modifier before a chronological modifier, such as "our last week's meeting," or "our today's meeting." The expectation is that "our" probably modifies the word that directly follows it, in other words, it sounds like "our" modifies "last week." But "last week," doesn't belong to us, so this sounds very weird. Unless you actually need the "our" modifier to clarify whose meeting and you need the "last week" modifier to clarify the time of the meeting, it makes sense to drop the modifier that is less helpful at conveying meeting.
There is no such rule: "our last week's meeting" is perfectly grammatical. There could be a last week's meeting that is not our: "the other team's last week's meeting raised the issue that we covering in our this week's meeting".
The phrase "in our last week's episode" is often heard in broadcasting, from native speakers of English.
The issue is that possessives don't always indicate possession. "last week's meeting" isn't a meeting that is possessed by last week; it just happened last week. That the meeting happened last week doesn't prevent it from also being our meeting.
Possession is exclusive. We can't have "Bob's John's pencil". The pen is either Bob's or John's. If there is a joint ownership arrangement with regard to the pencil, then this is expressed as "Bob and John's pencil". However, there can be a "Bob's carpenter's pencil". The second 's-word isn't a possessive; it's not saying that Bob owns a pencil which also belongs to some carpenter; the word "carpenter" here is a class, and the 's syntax indicates the pencil object's association with that class. That association is compatible with Bob owning the pencil, so both qualifiers can be applied.
Note that order is important; we would not say "carpenter's Bob's pen". The class relationship is applied to the pen first, then the specific ownership by Bob. There aren't pens which are primarily owned by Bob, and, secondarily, are carpenter's pens.
For similar reasons, we don't have "last week's our episode". We are not saying that the last week owns the meeting and so do we. If that were the case, it would be expressed as "ours and last week's meeting" (just like "Bob and John's pencil"), which is grammatical, but nonsense.
It seems that the time constraint "last week's" has to be applied first, and then the specific possessive.
What if we have multiple such 's qualifiers? How about "my last year's driver's license". This cannot be "my driver's last year's license" or any other permutation: the order has to be "owner -> time/space -> class -> object".
This sounds like one of those rules that someone made up because they could think of examples where breaking it caused problems, but didn't try to think through if breaking it would ALWAYS cause problems.
Well, off the top let me point out that the rule as worded, "never use two possessives in a row", is clearly wrong. People do that all the time and it makes perfect sense. "My dog's bone", "Fred's car's engine", etc. In examples like that, the first possessive modifies the first noun, and then that phrase is used as a possessive to modify the second noun. I mean, in "my dog's bone", I am saying that the dog belongs to me, and that the bone belongs to this dog which belongs to me. Both possessives are not modifying the same word. It is not "my bone" and also some "dog's bone".
But I assume that whoever made up this rule meant that you cannot have two possessives modifying the same noun. You can't say "Fred's Bob's car". That example clearly doesn't make sense. Is it Fred's car, or is it Bob's car? If it belongs to both, you need to join them with an "and", like "Fred's and Bob's car". If you're not sure of the ownership, you need to join them with an "or", like, "The red Chevy is either Fred's or Bob's car".
But possessives are used for many things other than ownership. If I am at work and I refer to "my desk", I probably don't mean that I own the desk, but rather that this is the desk where the company has assigned me to sit while I work. If I say, "my state", I don't mean that I personally own the entire state and everything in it. I simply mean that I live there. Etc.
So if I say "our meeting", I don't mean that I own the meeting. I don't know what that would even mean. I mean the meeting between you and me, or possibly the meeting that you and I organized. If I say "last week's meeting", I mean the meeting that happened last week. There is no reason why a meeting could not be both "our meeting" and "last week's meeting", so "our last week's meeting" is a perfectly sensible thing to say. And indeed people say things like that all the time.
Yes, USUALLY two possessives in a row that both apply to the same noun is wrong. But it's not valid to say that because something is USUALLY wrong that therefore you should NEVER do it.