Is there a rule that prohibits us from using 2 possessives in a row?

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An English teacher made a comment on my usage of the phrase, "Our last week's meeting", saying that it should be, "last week's meeting", is there a rule for this?

hey_you

Posted 2019-05-28T17:12:55.060

Reputation: 327

My, my... would you look at that? – zipzit – 2019-05-31T15:24:35.023

Answers

36

I've answered essentially the same question over at english.stackexchange.com: Why is “our today's meeting” wrong?

Usually, a noun phrase in English must have exactly one determiner: you can say "I drove this car" or "I drove my car", but not "I drove car" or "I drove this my car".

Certain nouns (such as plural nouns and proper nouns) don't need determiners: "I love bees", "I love milk", "I love Paris", "I love biology". But it's never acceptable for a noun phrase to have more than one determiner (with possible extremely rare exceptions).

"Our last week's meeting" is unacceptable because the noun phrase "meeting" has two determiners, "our" and "last week's". It would also be unacceptable to say "the today's meeting" or "our the meeting".

Here are some phrases which may seem to have multiple determiners, but don't actually:

  • your father's home - this noun phrase has only one determiner, namely, "your father's". Meanwhile, the phrase "your father" is also a noun phrase which only has one determiner, namely, "your".
  • the brass men's wristwatches - the determiner of this noun phrase is "the", and "brass" and "men's" are adjectives.
  • an old people's home - the determiner of this noun phrase is "an". The phrase "old people's home" is an idiom which acts as a simple noun, even though it looks like it contains a determiner.

Tanner Swett

Posted 2019-05-28T17:12:55.060

Reputation: 4 341

52Perhaps I've been reading too much fiction, but I initially parsed "the brass men's wristwatches" as wristwatches worn by literal brass-men, and not men's wristwatches made of brass. – mbrig – 2019-05-29T01:27:05.390

9As it happens, I spent several minutes trying to think of an adjective which could reasonably modify "wristwatches" but not "men". :) – Tanner Swett – 2019-05-29T01:29:23.770

2@Tanner Swett "Timex" or "Rolex" or "fully wound" – David Siegel – 2019-05-29T02:10:47.350

in this case can we say "Our meeting held last week"? – Jeffrey04 – 2019-05-29T04:05:24.080

2But if you throw in a comma, "I drove this, my car" is fine, especially if followed by more details, as in "I drove this, my car, all the way to Reno!" – TypeIA – 2019-05-29T10:47:31.370

6To expand on @TypeIA comment, if you add in a comma, then "this" is not a determiner for "my car", it's a pronoun that is the object of the verb "drove". "my car" then becomes an appositive for the pronoun "this". – Acccumulation – 2019-05-29T14:56:22.627

@TypeIA Seems like the sort of thing you would do on this, the day of your daughter's wedding. – Shufflepants – 2019-05-29T18:49:26.867

1And here I thought you spoke about the wristwatches owned by men who are made of brass ... – Hagen von Eitzen – 2019-05-29T20:59:33.220

There were two meetings last week. Was it ours or theirs? – Joshua – 2019-05-30T19:02:50.700

@mbrig, that is the very reason we should use commas in a list of adjectives. The result should be. "the brass, men's wristwatches." As it was written, your original interpretation should be correct. – Ron Maupin – 2019-05-31T04:54:26.803

I would add something about how to modify the sentence to communicate additional details. For example, if the context involves many different meetings, a speaker might wish to communicate they're referring to the meeting in which they and the listener participated during the previous week. This could be phrased as "our meeting last week." – jpmc26 – 2019-05-31T10:28:39.377

23

There isn't a rule that you can't use two possessives, but they don't indicate possession of the noun at the end, but instead each one modifies the next phrase.

Our last week's meeting

Is naturally read as

(Our last week)'s meeting

So, unless you are talking about meeting someone with in the week before you both die, it is unlikely to mean what you intend.

Multiple possessives tend to combine left to right, so

your mother's old uncle's shepherds pie

Is the pie of a type associated with shepherds belonging to the old uncle of your mother.

(((your mother)'s old uncle)'s (shepherds pie)

It doesn't mean that there is an old pie which belongs to you, your mother, an uncle and a number of shepherds all at the same time!

The example of course proves the rule - 'shepherds pie' is an idiomatic noun phrase so doesn't combine.

Pete Kirkham

Posted 2019-05-28T17:12:55.060

Reputation: 908

1It could be that the organization holding the meeting is going to be dissolved at the end of the week in question rather than that everyone involving the meeting is going to die. – David K – 2019-05-29T12:04:01.357

5The more I think about it, the more I think this answer gives the main reason why you shouldn't write "our last week's meeting" when you mean "our meeting last week." – David K – 2019-05-29T12:23:01.550

Right, as in "(my new driver's) license", which refers to how my newly employed chauffeur freely uses the language in the novel that he's working on in his spare time. – Kaz – 2019-05-29T19:43:52.207

1Really it's "((your mother)'s old uncle)'s (shepherd's pie)". "Shepherd's pie" is a name for a certain sort of lamb and mash dish -- it doesn't indicate possession. – Rosie F – 2019-05-30T07:27:08.540

@DavidK Or "last week" meaning "the week before the current week", rather than "the final week". – Jay – 2019-05-30T19:01:00.070

I think "Sheperd's pie" is so named because it is a style of pie produced by (and in a sense belonging to) shepherds. Evidence for this is that the meat is lamb, and changing the meat brings another modified, such as tofu shepherd's pie or beef shepherd's pie. I do not think that it is a pie made of shepherds as apple pie is made with apples. – cmm – 2019-05-31T13:44:55.187

17

Our last week's meeting

is a little akward, but I for one do not think that it is incorrect.

The answer by Tanner Swett says "it's never acceptable for a noun phrase to have more than one determiner." However, the Wikipedia article lists eight different "common" cases where multiple determiners are acceptable. Specifically:

  • A definite determiner can be followed by certain quantifiers (the many problems, these three things, my very few faults).
  • The words all and both can be followed by a definite determiner (all the green apples, both the boys), which can also be followed by a quantifier as above (all the many outstanding issues).
  • The word all can be followed by a cardinal number (all three things).
  • The word some can be followed by a cardinal number (some eight packets, meaning "approximately eight").
  • Words and phrases expressing fractions and multiples, such as half, double, twice, three times, etc. can be followed by a definite determiner: half a minute, double the risk, twice my age, three times my salary, three-quarters the diameter, etc.
  • The words such and exclamative-what can be followed by an indefinite article (as mentioned in the section above).
  • The word many can be used with the indefinite article and a singular noun (many a night, many an awkward moment).
  • The words each and every can be followed by a cardinal number or other expression of definite quantity (each two seats, every five grams of flour).

...

As with other parts of speech, it is often possible to connect determiners of the same type with the conjunctions and and or: his and her children, two or three beans.

The same answer says that "I drove this my car" is wrong. The form "this" followed by a possessive is now rare, but was once more common, especially in formal writing. In particular sentences such as:

It is a mistake to regard aspects of this our present society as unchangeable rules.

were sufficiently common to be a style marker in the writings of the late Robert A Heinlein.

Since the question title asks about using "two possessives in a row", this can certainly be proper.

  • This was John's father's watch.
  • This was King Mark's wife's cousin's castle.

are both quite correct.

David Siegel

Posted 2019-05-28T17:12:55.060

Reputation: 17 300

4Also this my will and this 29th of May 2019 - not common but not wrong. The Wikipedia article is just counting things as determiners that @TannerSwett is not counting, I think. I don't think it is really saying anything different. Anyway our last week's meeting does not come under any of the eight exceptions, as far as I can see, and to me it is so obviously wrong that it would take a lot more than a Wikipedia article to convince me otherwise. – None – 2019-05-29T00:18:09.597

1@Minty then we must agree to differ. I would think "our today's meeting" so odd as to be wrong, but "our last week's meeting" unusual but acceptable, leaving aside the case of Indian English, where it seems to be the usual form. – David Siegel – 2019-05-29T00:22:55.213

I can't imagine what logic would permit one of those constructions but not the other. Anyway I think the this... exceptions are more interesting. There must be some explanation but for now it escapes me. I don't think they come from e.g. this (my will, that is). – None – 2019-05-29T00:31:01.927

@Minty I don't think there is any true logic here, merely a pattern of usage. But then i think the attempt to find a fully logical rule in English grammar is often futile and wrongheaded. I agree that the constructions 'this"+possessive pronoun+noun or noun phrase are interesting, and i don't know their origin. – David Siegel – 2019-05-29T00:37:07.363

1

Interestingly, "our meeting of last week", which has the same semantics as "our last week's meeting", seems to be acceptable in a business letter in the U.S.: https://casetext.com/case/rhode-isl-five-v-med-assoc-of-bristol.

– David K – 2019-05-29T12:16:30.870

4As another answer pointed out, "our last week's meeting" can be (and I think should be) parsed as "(our last week)'s meeting": there has been (or will be) a week that was (or will be) our last, and we are talking about a meeting that we held (or will hold) during that week. That gives the phrase a quite different meaning than "last week's meeting," which can only refer to a meeting held the week before the statement was made. – David K – 2019-05-29T12:19:25.687

I have checked "our last week's" on google ngram and there are usages of this, but they date back to 19th and early 20th centuries. – hey_you – 2019-05-29T13:39:13.967

3@DavidK I would have thought that "our last week's meeting" meant clearly "the meeting that we held last week" and not "the meeting held in our final week". If it is used in the "final week" sense, then I will be surprised. I gather that this usage is common and accepted in Indian English. Does anyone know how it is used there? – David Siegel – 2019-05-29T15:44:54.407

1@hey_you This is the kind of issue on which i do not trust the corpus used by Google Ngrams to be represenative. – David Siegel – 2019-05-29T15:46:43.293

1@DavidSiegel Perhaps rather than “should be” I ought to have said “would be, under the standard grammar of American English”. In a sequence of two possessive forms, the first one modifies the second. On the other hand an AmE speaker would be very unlikely to write such a sentence. We would write “our meeting last week” or “our last weekly meeting” depending on which meaning was intended. If I saw the phrase completely out of context, my guess would be it is Indian English and means “our meeting last week.” – David K – 2019-05-29T19:57:20.127

It is a mistake to regard aspects of this, our present society, as unchangeable rules. That is an appositive. – Lambie – 2019-05-29T20:37:18.357

@Lambie The answer by Tanner Swett stated that "I drove this my car" was wrong because it included multiple determiners. Would you call that an appositive? If not, what is the difference? – David Siegel – 2019-05-29T21:22:50.920

"All the many" looks to me more like a compound determiner, rather than an example of 2 or 3 separate determiners. As for "such a", there is a pre-determiner position for adjectives. – Rosie F – 2019-05-30T07:30:03.020

6

It's either:

Last week's meeting

or:

Our meeting last week

but I agree with your teacher that:

Our last week's meeting

sounds awkward and should probably be avoided.

J.R.

Posted 2019-05-28T17:12:55.060

Reputation: 108 123

It is indeed a little awkward, but perfectly common in spoken, British English. – Mike Brockington – 2019-05-29T15:50:46.877

what about "our last week meeting"? – Cardinal – 2019-05-31T16:50:11.370

1@Cardinal - That still sounds awkward to me, although their may be some context I can’t think of where it might sound okay. That said, I think “Our next weekly meeting” works just fine. – J.R. – 2019-05-31T18:08:30.383

6

You can use two possessives in a row, that is not an issue. For example, if I have a cat, and my cat has a toy, I can say "my cat's toy." If there is a manufacturer for that toy, it would be somewhat acceptable, although convoluted, to say "my cat's toy's manufacturer," which would be three possessives in a row. If that manufacturer had subsidiaries, it would be much harder to follow, but you could probably still say "my cat's toy's manufacturer's subsidiaries." Though, with four possessives in a row, we'd probably rearrange the sentence structure to break them up some.

In English, we would commonly say "last week's meeting," or perhaps "our meeting last week." We don't put an "our" modifier before a chronological modifier, such as "our last week's meeting," or "our today's meeting." The expectation is that "our" probably modifies the word that directly follows it, in other words, it sounds like "our" modifies "last week." But "last week," doesn't belong to us, so this sounds very weird. Unless you actually need the "our" modifier to clarify whose meeting and you need the "last week" modifier to clarify the time of the meeting, it makes sense to drop the modifier that is less helpful at conveying meeting.

John

Posted 2019-05-28T17:12:55.060

Reputation: 161

1You're saying that your cat's toy's manufacturer's subsidiary's phrasing is poor? ;-) – David Richerby – 2019-05-30T16:50:14.753

4

There is no such rule: "our last week's meeting" is perfectly grammatical. There could be a last week's meeting that is not our: "the other team's last week's meeting raised the issue that we covering in our this week's meeting".

The phrase "in our last week's episode" is often heard in broadcasting, from native speakers of English.

The issue is that possessives don't always indicate possession. "last week's meeting" isn't a meeting that is possessed by last week; it just happened last week. That the meeting happened last week doesn't prevent it from also being our meeting.

Possession is exclusive. We can't have "Bob's John's pencil". The pen is either Bob's or John's. If there is a joint ownership arrangement with regard to the pencil, then this is expressed as "Bob and John's pencil". However, there can be a "Bob's carpenter's pencil". The second 's-word isn't a possessive; it's not saying that Bob owns a pencil which also belongs to some carpenter; the word "carpenter" here is a class, and the 's syntax indicates the pencil object's association with that class. That association is compatible with Bob owning the pencil, so both qualifiers can be applied.

Note that order is important; we would not say "carpenter's Bob's pen". The class relationship is applied to the pen first, then the specific ownership by Bob. There aren't pens which are primarily owned by Bob, and, secondarily, are carpenter's pens.

For similar reasons, we don't have "last week's our episode". We are not saying that the last week owns the meeting and so do we. If that were the case, it would be expressed as "ours and last week's meeting" (just like "Bob and John's pencil"), which is grammatical, but nonsense.

It seems that the time constraint "last week's" has to be applied first, and then the specific possessive.

What if we have multiple such 's qualifiers? How about "my last year's driver's license". This cannot be "my driver's last year's license" or any other permutation: the order has to be "owner -> time/space -> class -> object".

Kaz

Posted 2019-05-28T17:12:55.060

Reputation: 6 114

Thre is such a thing as a "carpenter's pencil" (one designed for use in carpentry) and bon xould own one, but that would be "bob's carpenter's pencil". Similarly "bob's mason's trowel" does not belong to a mason, it is of a type associated with a mason. – David Siegel – 2019-05-30T02:52:43.237

@DavidSiegel he is aware of that. "Our last week's meeting" also doesn't belong to last week, it is a type of meeting that just happened last week. – hey_you – 2019-05-30T08:11:54.137

2My brother and I married (different) women with the same first name. "John's Susan" was a common construct in family conversation. "John's Susan's car" was a less common construct, but it did come up. – jeffB – 2019-05-30T16:33:14.860

1@jeffB John's Susan's car is completely unproblematic in the light of this Q&A item; it's like "England's king's throne's cushion". Here, multiple attributes are not being all lavished upon the cushion, but are chained. The cushion belongs to the throne, the throne belongs to the king, the king is that one of England. – Kaz – 2019-05-30T18:26:38.177

@DavidSiegel > Thre is such a thing as a "carpenter's pencil" (one designed for use in carpentry) and bon xould own one, but that would be "bob's carpenter's pencil" Comments are not for echoing the answer? headscratch. – Kaz – 2019-05-30T18:27:55.537

@kaz the pointe of the comment is that "carpenter's pencil" may not mean "a pencil which also belongs to some carpenter" as the answer at that time seemed to me to suggest. – David Siegel – 2019-05-30T22:55:10.327

@jeffB - "I am your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate." – Mazura – 2019-05-31T01:22:46.193

@DavidSiegel okay, you completely ignored my comment if you say that then... – hey_you – 2019-05-31T19:40:13.557

@hey_you I am not sufre which commtn you think I ignored, or what response you wanted. Your most recent comment in this thread began "He is aware of that" without indicating who is aware of what. I understand that a "possessive" need not indicate "belonging" but may indicate some sort of association instead. – David Siegel – 2019-05-31T19:46:08.643

1

This sounds like one of those rules that someone made up because they could think of examples where breaking it caused problems, but didn't try to think through if breaking it would ALWAYS cause problems.

Well, off the top let me point out that the rule as worded, "never use two possessives in a row", is clearly wrong. People do that all the time and it makes perfect sense. "My dog's bone", "Fred's car's engine", etc. In examples like that, the first possessive modifies the first noun, and then that phrase is used as a possessive to modify the second noun. I mean, in "my dog's bone", I am saying that the dog belongs to me, and that the bone belongs to this dog which belongs to me. Both possessives are not modifying the same word. It is not "my bone" and also some "dog's bone".

But I assume that whoever made up this rule meant that you cannot have two possessives modifying the same noun. You can't say "Fred's Bob's car". That example clearly doesn't make sense. Is it Fred's car, or is it Bob's car? If it belongs to both, you need to join them with an "and", like "Fred's and Bob's car". If you're not sure of the ownership, you need to join them with an "or", like, "The red Chevy is either Fred's or Bob's car".

But possessives are used for many things other than ownership. If I am at work and I refer to "my desk", I probably don't mean that I own the desk, but rather that this is the desk where the company has assigned me to sit while I work. If I say, "my state", I don't mean that I personally own the entire state and everything in it. I simply mean that I live there. Etc.

So if I say "our meeting", I don't mean that I own the meeting. I don't know what that would even mean. I mean the meeting between you and me, or possibly the meeting that you and I organized. If I say "last week's meeting", I mean the meeting that happened last week. There is no reason why a meeting could not be both "our meeting" and "last week's meeting", so "our last week's meeting" is a perfectly sensible thing to say. And indeed people say things like that all the time.

Yes, USUALLY two possessives in a row that both apply to the same noun is wrong. But it's not valid to say that because something is USUALLY wrong that therefore you should NEVER do it.

Jay

Posted 2019-05-28T17:12:55.060

Reputation: 51 729

-1

"Our today's meeting" means literally "(the) meeting of our today". This is why it's wrong. I believe we all agree that nobody would say "meeting of our today".

Eulalia

Posted 2019-05-28T17:12:55.060

Reputation: 1

Welcome and thanks for your first answer on this site. While the answer is correct it doesn't really address the question. The question asks for a rule by which the learner can understand why the sentence is wrong. I don't see that you've provided one so I'm downvoting the answer. This can be reversed if you improve the answer. The community values answers with a fair amount of thought put into them. Please look around and check out answers with lots of votes to see what's normally expected. – dwilli – 2019-06-01T05:01:15.897

"My driver's license" means "the license of my driver", but we use it to refer to something that belongs to us. – hey_you – 2019-06-02T13:16:58.773