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February 22, 2007 | 8 Comments

Dear Ask Mr. English Major,
James J. Kilpatrick recently wrote a column eschewing the double possessive. When Garrison Keillor on his radio show, speaking of a man who had recently died, described the fellow as "a friend of Butch Thompson's", I started to gloat. Had I caught the venerable GK in an error of English usage? According to Mr. Kilpatrick, he should properly have said, a friend of Butch Thompson." But then, just a few moments later, GK was introducing the next musical number which was a "piece of Butch Thompson's". Now I am really confused. How could they possibly play a "piece of Butch Thompson"?

Please help me sort this out, it's been eating at me for two days.

Doug F.
Seattle, WA


I am glad somebody takes grammar seriously, but two days of suffering is too much. The double possessive construction you cite is utterly common and has been for centuries and thus is acceptable. It's what people actually say, as opposed to what logic might dictate. It's a useful construction. There is a difference between "a picture of my brother" and "a picture of my brother's," for example. Or "a piece of Butch Thompson's" and "a piece of Butch Thompson". But we'd say "a friend of public radio" or "a friend of the spotted owl". Quite an interesting language you chose for your first language, Doug.


8 Comments


GK's prose come from within and we receive them joyously. 'Tis far better to listen to GK's melodic voice for content and sound rather than anything written in the odd column or two.

GK wonderfully translates to sound:

'But words are things, and a small drop of ink
Falling, like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions think.'

Byron


Sweet sweetsweet Doug, 'tis a fact that GK
has millions of listeners.


"A friend of Butch Thompson's" also corresponds with what we would say if we used pronouns in the same phrase: "a friend of his" or "a friend of mine," not "a friend of he" or "a friend of me."


I must vent, I do not have a problem with the double possessive. My problem lies with "me and (fill in the blank)", this sentence is everywhere. Children, adults, television, and even one of the poems in the Writer Almanac, does anyone still teach grammar? Or is this now allowed? Please help! I am beginning to think I am the only one left who says it correctly, "(fill in the blank) and I" or "(fill in the blank) and me".


As an engineer I hestitate to comment on the grammar of an English Major. However, I do feel that performers in the public media should set a good example in grammar and word usage. English Majors have a definite obligation to use good grammar. GK, please stop saying "we've got" .

Otherwise I really enjoy "A Prairie Home Companion" both live and on the radio.


In the English Major entry about Butch Thompson and double possessive...I am surprised to see the period outside the quotation marks.


Concerning "a friend of Butch Thompson's" I might, if languidly, be inclined toward Mr. Kilpatrick's argument. However, in the second instance, what's really being said is "a piece of Butch Thompson's 'repertoire', or 'body of work'," BT becomes a descriptor of the unspoken object of the preposition "of" rather than the object itself.


RE Double Possessives

GK says, in essence, that he writes the way we speak. Probably correct. The problem with the double possessive, especially in written discourse, is that it is confusing. The apostrophe denotes a contraction or a possessive.
The phrase "friend of Burt Thompson's" probably arises from the attempt to invert and put into the passive voice the phrase 'I am BT's friend.", but leaves the reader questioning the writer's intent. Using the double possessive suggests that the writer is using elipsis, meaning that words are left off after "Thompson's". Does the writer mean that he is the friend of BT's mother, second cousin, dog?

Where is Ms. Truss when you need her.

Jamie Trimble

p.s. I'm from Canada. Love your show. Do you plan on doing one from up here one day?


I'm with Garrison and Elizabeth on this. It used to annoy me when President Clinton was in office and people would refer to someone as "a friend of Bill." You would not say "friend of me."

Regarding one post above, would the writer think that "She's a friend of his" implies more to follow? It's the same thing. You wouldn't say, "She's a friend of him." At least, I wouldn't.

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