I learn English for years and this is something I don’t understand completely.

In my natural language, If I want to say, for example, that an office belongs to a director, I say, “escritório do diretor” (office of the director) but in English you have this contraction form “director’s office”, and I thought that this former form was the preferred one.

One of the most lunatic phrases I heard in English was someone referring to what we would say in Portuguese, ”the son of the daughter of a friend” as “a friend's daughter’s son”.

So, I ask: is there a rule or something to always know the right way to say stuff like that in English?

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    ”the son of the daughter of a friend” - repeated use of 'the' makes this sound like a lunatic phrase to native English speakers :-)
    – deep64blue
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 8:34
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    ”the son of the daughter of a friend” sounds like the response when someone hears “a friend's daughter’s son” and doesn't understand it. Perfectly natural, but much more formal / 'Plain English' than the shorter form. (As is often the case.)
    – MikeB
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 9:34
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    It's not a contraction, it's a genitive. Perfectly respectable and normal. And "lunatic"? Really!
    – TonyK
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 11:58
  • How does your "natural…" compare to your "native…" language"? I think you need "native"… If your own Portugues, Spanish or what allows an office to belong to a director, "the office of the director" would work in English with that initial "the…" English does have the contracted form “(the) director’s office” and there is no useful preference. We use whichever form seems to suit the situation. Unless you have a specific situation in mind, what do you hope to achieve? Commented May 9, 2022 at 21:08
  • to expand on @TonyK's comment. The possessive 's is sometimes claimed to be a contraction of "his". This can't account for its use on nouns that would be described with the pronouns "it" or "she". It also has no historical basis. Adding a possessive pronoun after a noun has never been a normal way of forming possessive phrases in English. Instead, as Tony says, this is just the old genitive ending (originally -es) that ended up getting split off from the noun it describes and instead being placed at the end of the entire noun phrase (e.g. "the Queen of England's dogs")
    – Tristan
    Commented May 10, 2022 at 9:32

2 Answers 2


We can chain possessives together, especially if the result would avoid lots of repetitions of 'the', 'of', 'of the', 'of a', etc. This is not 'lunatic' to a native English speaker. Often brevity is valued or useful.

A friend's daughter's son - four words. ('a friend's grandson' is only three words, and may suffice).

The son of the daughter of a friend - eight words.

There is no 'rule' that says that either the long or short version is 'correct'. In some situations (formal writing) the long version may be preferable, and in either style, a long chain is better broken up.

There is a set phrase for someone who is a slightly distant acquaintance: 'the friend of a friend'. You could add one more 'of a friend' but not really any more.

  • 1
    I say “lunatic” on a good sense compared to portuguese, where we say it without these word savings… 😀
    – Duck
    Commented May 8, 2022 at 22:25
  • The "of" form is often useful when explaining complex relationships: L. is the wife of the second son of my brother's step-daughter. In fact I would generally tend to avoid chaining possessives: "the population of the birthplace of my wife's secretary", is preferable to "my wife's secretary's birthplace's population". Commented May 9, 2022 at 22:10
  • This is true but irrelevant. Ethan Bolker's answer is the correct one. Commented May 10, 2022 at 11:22

The possessive form is the normal one in English.

In this case, the "Director's office" refers to the physical location where the Director does business. "Office of the Director" would be unnatural for that. It might be used to refer to a position in the company's organization chart. You could say "Susan Jones currently occupies the Office of the Director".

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    "Office of the Director" could also be the business unit responsible for directly supporting the director and managing their diary.
    – avid
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 5:56
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    "You'll have to go to the Office of the Director to get that approved" wouldn't be entirely unnatural for a native American English speaker, though "You'll have to go to the Director to get that approved" would be more common. "I work in the Office of the Director", however, would be very natural.
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 11:20
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    Similarly in BrE. "The Office of X..." usually means the people who support the director, their secretaries, their assistants, and so on, and maybe a formal organisational unit. "The Director's Office" without additional context and by default would mean the room where the director works. If I saw a room which said "The Office Of The President" I would expect to open it to find a lot of noisy hubbub and dozens of people preparing documents, fielding calls, etc. Beyond it there might be a small room they call the President's office where there's someone sitting at a big polished desk .
    – Dannie
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 16:53
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    This is such a thought-provoking question, and this is the right answer. "Office" has two meanings: a workplace, or an institution. I can't explain why using 's selects the workplace meaning and of selects the institutional meaning, but that's how English works! I can't think of any other example where such a distinction exists. Commented May 9, 2022 at 18:26
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    @200_success There are actually quite a few examples. The College of Cardinals is a formal entity in the Catholic Church; the Cardinal's college is where he was educated. The House of Stuart was the Scottish Royal Family; Stuart's house is where my friend lives.
    – avid
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 19:37

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