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I read the following usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language's entry for "of":

Grammarians have sometimes condemned categorically the so-called double genitive construction, as in a friend of my father's; a book of mine. The construction is well supported by literary precedent, however, and serves a useful purpose. Thus there is no substitute for the double genitive in a sentence such as "That's the only friend of yours that I've ever met", since a sentence such as "That's your only friend that I've ever met" is obviously impossible.

I cannot perceive the awkwardness in "That's your only friend that I've ever met". It is a restrictive relative clause, so I think it implies you have more than one friend. I think it means exactly the same thing with "That's the only friend of yours that I've ever met": Your have some friends, but that person is the only one that I've ever met.


Edited: Here is the link, with different information from my older edition.

https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=of

There are also cases in which the double genitive may be more elegant; for example, many speakers find such sentences as "That's your only friend that I've ever met" to be awkward or impossible, but rephrasing using the double genitive provides an acceptable alternative, as in "That's the only friend of yours that I've ever met."

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    That's your only friend implies that you have only one friend, which is obviously not the intended meaning. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 16:00
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    I Googled that quote. Unless you can provide a link proving otherwise, it's not from The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, a title that doesn't actually exist as the full name of The American Heritage Dictionary is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Rather, it's a quote used in only non-English sources, specifically texts written in various Asian languages for learners of English as a second language, which often convey wrong information, like has happened here since, for example, there's definitely nothing impossible about that second sentence. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 16:40
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    I think there's gonna be scope for disagreement here. I don't know anything about the source being cited, but I'm quite happy to say That's your only friend that I've ever met is NOT A VALID CONSTRUCTION from my perspective. On the other hand, I'm sure there will be other native speakers who will accept it with little or no hesitation. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 18:00
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    What a disgrace! Such an elegant and deep question went basically unanswered.
    – user1425
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 7:48

2 Answers 2

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I cannot perceive the awkwardness in "That's your only friend that I've ever met".

Good. In informal modern English, there isn't any.

The placement of the genitives and clauses here is no more wrong than the admonisher using that instead of whom in their own 'model' sentence. You might then ask

Why do they think it's impossible?

It's rough going for ELLs but the best treatment of some people's tendency to beclown themselves with overstatements like your quote was David Foster Wallace's "Tense Present" for the April 2001 Harper's. In this particular case, Google won't show the text you quoted but they have it scanned and indexed. They lay credit/blame for your passage at the doorstep of the 1992 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary edited by Anne H. Soukhanov. Her own justification for being a SNOOT despite knowing better would be along the lines of

... you're basically studying a foreign dialect. This dialect is called Standard Written English... There are some otherwise smart English profs who aren't very aware that there are real dialects of English other than SWE, so when they're reading your papers they'll put, like, "Incorrect conjugation" or "Comma needed" instead of "SWE conjugates this verb differently" or "SWE calls for a comma here." That's the good news—it's not that you're a bad writer, it's that you haven't learned the special rules of the dialect they want you to write in.

Still, even though Ms Soukhanov is an intelligent woman, in this case she isn't defending good grammar or logic against the careless hordes. She is choosing to understand the sentence in a particularly unhelpful way, then declaring that way completely wrong, and then ignoring the other ways to understand the expression that make it perfectly clear to native speakers.

She is taking the sentence to be the conjunction of the ideas That is your only friend and also that is the only one of your friends whom I've met. Those two ideas are mutually exclusive. Subsequent editions of the AHD and their Book of English Usage have walked back her claim a little. They now just say it's ungrammatical or that some people will find it ungrammatical. Really, of course, the way she (and some of the posters here) are choosing to misread the sentence is itself a mistake that tries to reuse the only for two separate meanings at the same time.

Like you already know, that sentence actually just means That is the only one of your friends whom I have met and there's no problem... unless you're doing a test with subjective grading and need to keep the scorer happy. In that case, the safer thing to do is rephrase.

(In Ms Soukhanov's defense, she was somewhat distracted. In this passage, she was trying to defend a good informal usage against people even more proscriptivist than she is, who want to pretend double genitives are never appropriate. She then tried to draw her own line to show she wasn't on the side of complete descriptivist chaos. I agree with you that her example wasn't well considered. Even Astralbee above thinks the sentence is a possible idea; they just dislike the sloppiness of using a restrictive clause on someone just described as totally unique.)

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    The answer that the OP wants to hear always gets the tick. And there's nothing they want to hear more than their English teacher is wrong.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 11:23
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    Might be wrong but I don't think Ms Soukhanov was the OP's English teacher or that that's the only difference in our answers.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 14:29
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    This is wrong. "Your only friend that I haven't met" is awkward. After "your only...", we expect a type of thing that people have, but instead we get "friend that I haven't met", which isn't a thing unto itself. People have friends, and some of those friends we haven't met, but people don't have a list of "friends that we haven't met".
    – gotube
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 18:51
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    @gotube Ignoring the checkmark and other voters who disagree, even on your own terms, your comment is mistaken. Of course I don't have a list of [somehow isolated from humanity] entities-known-as-friends we haven't met. On the other hand, you (assuming we knew each other) do have a list of my friends who you haven't met... and of course that's exactly what we're talking about. You can prefer another structure as less potentially awkward or less garden-pathy but it is a valid way of expressing the concept.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 14:31
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    Congratulations on your detailed and well-researched answer! Although the construction does sound very awkward to me, it would appear that not everyone shares that opinion (I was surprised to see the Ngram results Ben Murphy linked!). I have awarded this answer the bounty because SE doesn't allow it to be split, and although the competing answer gives a better analysis of what makes the 'impossible' construction sound wrong, your answer in my opinion is better at addressing the more directly relevant issue of whether it's actually logically impossible - and you've convinced me it isn't :) Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 17:59
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I don't know what you mean by an 'impossible sentence'. It's always possible to be wrong! And it is poor English grammar. Here's why...

"That" introduces a defining clause - information that defines the subject. For example, if you spoke to someone about "the friend" they may not know who you are speaking about. Which friend? But, if you said "the friend that I made on vacation", that helps define which friend you mean.

"Your only friend" does not need any further definition. If someone has only one friend, that's all you need to know. Of course, that isn't what you mean to say, but that is what it sounds like. So, "your only friend that..." doesn't sound right from the start.

Opening with "The only friend..." begs further definition. There are lots of friends in the world. Which friend? Whose friend? So you add more information:

The only friend of yours...

"Of" means 'from among'. So we're talking about one specific friend (hence the definite article) from among a person's friends. But we still need something to define them to know what makes them the 'only' friend from among that group that we are speaking about.

The only friend of yours that I have met.

And that's the friend defined. I've only met one of your many friends, and that's the one we're speaking about.

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    NGrams also seems to imply that the so called “impossible” construction is more common: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Ben Murphy
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 9:40
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    @BenMurphy Sorry you feel that way. I haven't actually said that "it's impossible"... just that it doesn't sound right, which it doesn't. From reading these kinds of questions on here it seems that non-native teachers of English sometimes take a harder line on 'rules'. I stand by my answer regardless of your downvote because I've answered why the OP is being told it is incorrect. You are taking a different kind of hard-line - insisting that it 'could' be used, but with the outcome of leaving an English learner sounding like they can't speak the language properly.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 11:03
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    @BenMurphy Why doesn't it sound right? I refer you to my answer. It's bad English grammar. Some people might say it in extemporaneous speech and some listeners might turn a blind eye to it, but that doesn't make it correct. Even Grammarly doesn't like it.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 12:07
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    @BenMurphy Also, I've looked at the ngram results you linked to and they are seriously flawed. For example, it is including results where a sentence ends with "your only friend" and the next sentence begins with "That", because the search ignores punctuation.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 12:20
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    "They are based on a limited selection of books" How limited is that? A science paper supplies that figure: While the tool’s massive corpus of data [(about 8 million books or 6% of all books ever published) has been used in various scientific studies, concerns about the accuracy of results have simultaneously emerged"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 13:26

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