Double Genitive: It Only Sounds Dirty

Sarah squeezed John’s hand with enough force that, were it coal, she might have produced a diamond, but John scarcely noticed. The delivery room dissolved into a white and grey void where all that existed was his child, entering the world in a feat of biological wonder that, though he didn’t know it at the time, would leave him to forever marvel at his wife’s—and all women’s—capacity to create life.

The doctor held the newborn, so small, so vulnerable. Was it a boy, John wondered, or a girl? The doctor met John’s eyes. Something was wrong! “Oh, no,” the doctor said.

“What is it?” Sarah asked, again bearing down on John’s hand.

“Your child . . .” the doctor started.

“What? Tell us,” John blurted.

The doctor’s face went pale. “Your child has a double genitive!”

***

Anyone who’s seen the twin girls in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s The Shining knows how disturbing doubles can be. Perhaps part of the blame lies in the inordinate number of times we’ve been told that no two snowflakes are alike, or maybe it’s just that our single points of consciousness reject the notion of a duplicate, but whatever the case, people feel a little frisson of horror at the appearance of a doppelganger.

The sensation many people experience when they come upon a double genitive might not approach actual horror, but at the very least it can be described as unsettling.

A double genitive, also called a double possessive, occurs when possession is indicated both by the preposition of and the possessive form of a noun or pronoun (for example, the baby of John’s).

The double genitive serves a dual purpose of making otherwise surefooted readers question themselves. It’s the kind of construction that one might pass over a thousand times and never give a second thought, until one day it’s looked at in a slightly different light and the reader says to him- or herself: That can’t be right!

There are in fact grammatical purists who will insist that it isn’t right, largely owing to its not having a corresponding construction (a literary doppelganger?) in Latin. The construction has been around for centuries, however, and is perfectly acceptable in all but the most formal writing.

***

This week’s reading list:

The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Double by Jose Saramago

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