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The question is about when it's possible to use the double possessive "X of Y's" if "X" is an abstract noun.

As far as I know:

(1a) an idea of the boss — correct
(1b) an idea of the boss's — correct
(1c) a boss idea — incorrect
(1d) the boss's idea — correct

(2a) the nationality of the boss — correct
(2b) nationality of the boss'sIs this correct?
(2c) the boss nationality — incorrect
(2d) the boss's nationality — correct

(3a) the death of the boss — correct
(3b) a death of the boss'sIs this correct?
(3c) the boss death — incorrect
(3d) the boss's death — correct

The phrases "an idea of the boss's", "nationality of the boss's" and "a death of the boss's" have the same construction.
So if "an idea of the boss's" is correct, then "nationality of the boss's" and "a death of the boss's" must be correct too, right?
If not, then why not?

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  • 1
    The third group of examples sound like the boss can die more than once. They would be better if they used the instead of a.
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 12 at 11:23
  • @Peter Thank you. I replaced "a death of the boss" with "the death of the boss". But I can't replace "a death of the boss's" with "the death of the boss's" because the double genitive doesn't allow to use "the".
    – Loviii
    Commented Jan 12 at 12:21

2 Answers 2

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It is worth noting firstly that "the boss's pen" can mean either "a pen belonging to the boss" or "the pen belonging to the boss". On the other hand "a pen of the boss's" means "a pen belonging to the boss", and "the pen of the boss's" means "the pen belonging to the boss".

The main issue is not whether the noun is abstract or not, but the relationship that is being expressed. "Of the" can be used to express many relationships, but is not often used for simple possession.

Two useful resources on double genitives are:

www.merriam-webster.com/grammar/double-possessives-genitives, and

www.thoughtco.com/double-genitive-grammar-1690474

Regarding your examples 1b and 1d are correct and mean almost the same thing (see the opening note). 2a and 2d and correct and mean the same thing; 3a and 3d likewise. 1a, 2b, 3b are problematic for one reason or another. 1c, 2c and 3c are all, as you thought, incorrect.

Regarding 1a: "An idea of the boss" would not normally be used to mean an idea that the boss owned (because he had thought of it). The first part of the phrase "an idea of" is often used in the sense of "an understanding of what something is or is like", and this would confuse a hearer/reader.

Regarding 2b and 3b, it is difficult to imagine situations where they would be natural.

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  • You wrote about all phrases from the original post. I appreciate it very much!
    – Loviii
    Commented Jan 12 at 14:12
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You can't use this construction to talk about something that a person can only have one of. We say a friend of mine to mean 'one among my several/many friends', but we don't say a mother of mine.

The boss presumably has many ideas, but only one nationality, and they can only die once!

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  • We do sometimes say "that mother of mine" - typically when she has done something we find annoying. Perhaps not quite the same!
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 12 at 13:12
  • Suppose the boss is from a computer game and can die more than once. In this case, is "a death of the boss's" correct?
    – Loviii
    Commented Jan 12 at 13:16
  • @Loviii, With the old definition of death even a real person could die twice. However it is a death of the boss, not a death of the boss's. A death of the boss's might mean one that the boss is investigating (e.g. if the boss is a coroner).
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 12 at 13:26
  • That is such an exceptional case that it's impossible to judge the 'grammatical correctness' of it. Personally, I would be more inclined to say one of the boss's deaths or one of the times that the boss died. Using 'an X of Y's' takes it for granted that Y has many Xs, and multiple deaths isn't something you take for granted! Commented Jan 12 at 13:27

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