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As the following examples show, if Y possesses X we can use the double possessive "X of Y's".

an example from merriam-webster.com:
(1) It had long been a dream of Mabel's to win the baking contest.
That is: Mabel possesses a dream.

an example from the textbook "The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar", page 178:
(2) some books of Jane’s
That is: Jane possesses some books.

an example from an answer on english.stackexchange.com:
(3) that dog of John's
That is: John possesses that dog.

But in a comment on ell.stackexchange.com, I was told that the following phrase is incorrect:
(4) a car of my friend's
Although the sense is the same: my friend possesses a car.

So why is "(4)" incorrect, whereas (1), (2) & (3) are correct?

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    I don't think "(4)" is incorrect, It's just idiomatically uncommon to refer to [a / the] car of my friend's rather than my friend's car. Note that these are "double possessive" usages anyway - a friend of John and a friend of John's are equivalent and interchangeable. Commented Jan 21 at 13:55
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    The other example indicate that double possessive is mostly used when the quantifier or determiner is important or there are other reasons for a similar word order. "Some books of Jane's" because how would you quantify "Jane's books"? Likewise other modifiers like in "the books of Jane's, who I met at a party in Highgate." It's mostly style, not grammatical law.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 21 at 14:00
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    We usually use that construction when it's assumed that the person possesses a number of those things. The sentences refer to one of the many dreams Mabel may have had, and some of the many books that Jane owns. However, unless you are a wealthy collector is is unusual to own several cars. It would be more idiomatic to say "One of my friend's cars" if he does in fact have a number of them. Commented Jan 21 at 14:02
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    I think if I heard (4) spoken I might first guess friends or friends' was said, instead of friend's.
    – Dan Getz
    Commented Jan 21 at 15:35
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    @DanGetz: Exactly. In real (spoken) English, it's impossible to distinguish [an X] ...of my friends' (an X collectively owned by several of my friends) from ...of my friend's (an X owned by one of my friends). But in almost all real-world situations, we're not even aware of having to "guess" the intended meaning, because it's obvious from the actual context. And real-world contexts are far more "informative" than anything that might get written in an online primarily "written-words-only" context such as a post on ELL. Commented Jan 21 at 19:41

1 Answer 1

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Firstly, the "saxon genitive" would be preferred. "My friend's car". "The car of ..." is already unusual, we should be careful about interpreting which form is more natural.

Secondly in spoken English this would sound the same as "The car of my friends" This is different from the situation in which a name is used, since names don't have plural forms. This means that "A car of my friend's" would be avoided in speech.

Finally in the more formal style of written English, the double possessive is often avoided, as it is a more colloquial construction.

So "a car of my friend's" is not ungrammatical, but it wouldn't normally be used in spoken nor in written English. So it would never actually get used at all.

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