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I've noticed that native speakers sometimes make nouns they've already made possessive, possessive again. If this is syntactically sound, I don't understand it.

For example, "her relative was mean" could alternatively be written as: "a relative of hers was mean."

Why isn't it "a relative of her was mean"?

  • There isn't a problem with any number of possessives. For instance, the following is perfectly possible: My father's doctor's aunt's neighbour's dog's vet's wife's son was avoiding me at a recent party. In the sentence, it's her relative—the relative is hers—so it's a relative of hers. I wouldn't say a father of me. I'd say a father of mine. (Although I might say that somebody is a father to me.) – Jason Bassford Jul 19 at 2:49
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    To confirm, you wouldn't say "a daughter of Brenda," but "a daughter of Brenda's?" – Ella Strange Jul 19 at 3:54
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    @JasonBassford maybe a more illuminating comparison would be a father of my since we say "my father" and not "me father" – katatahito Jul 19 at 5:00
  • This question may be helpful. as well as this chart. – katatahito Jul 19 at 5:04
  • @EllaStrange While a daughter of Brenda is not actually ungrammatical, it has an archaic, Biblical feel to me. I think a daughter of Brenda's is much more idiomatic in modern English. So, yes, I would use the explicit possessive. – Jason Bassford Jul 19 at 5:33
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In modern English, of is not commonly used to indicate possession, which perhaps explains Jason's comment that it feels biblical. Relationships are (generally) mutual so examples using relatives make this a little more confusing than it needs to be. If we instead think of possessing an item, like a car, a native English speaker would find the sentence "This is the car of John" strange, archaic or maybe even wrong.

My native feeling for the word of in your question, is more similar to "one of many", as in, she has many cars. "This car is one of hers." Could be short for "This car is one of her cars."

As a final example, let's consider the phrase "a part of her" and compare with "a part of hers". The first phrase says she is composed of parts and we are talking about one of them. The second says that she possesses parts but it's unclear if they are car parts or some other kind of part (like a part of her personality).

  • I understand that it feels archaic, saying, for example, that car of John. And the more I think about it the more it sounds like the car originated from a place called John. But it's technically not wrong, even though a native speaker wouldn't say it? If the consensus is "a relative of her," instead of "a relative of hers," is wrong, why isn't the same true for "a relative of John," instead of a "a relative of John's." You mention your feeling of the operation of "of" in the original example. Can you elaborate on how it's different from the other examples? – Ella Strange Jul 24 at 13:13
  • Good questions! I suppose one of the things I'm trying to get at in my answer, is that the phrases "a relative of John" and "a relative of John's" feel more similar to a native speaker (than the examples I gave) because that kind of possession is mutual. When I try to analyze why they don't feel exactly the same ("a relative of John's" is preferred), my gut tells me it's the role of of. So I would say that these examples aren't different. In each case the doubled possession is preferred because the "of" isn't satisfying a native speaker's desire to communicate possession. – KCE Jul 24 at 13:55

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