Double Possessives and the Power of 'Of'

Bill in Williamsport, Pa., has a question about an odd possessive construction: “Joe is a friend of John’s.

To Bill, this structure seems redundant and awkward because it uses both “of” and an apostrophe to show possession. He prefers the more direct variation “Joe is John’s friend.”

Is he right? Is “a friend of John’s” redundant? In a word, yes. So if this were math or logic, “a friend of John’s” would be nonsense. But language isn’t always mathematical or logical, and when it’s not, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

 “A friend of John’s” is something called a double possessive or a double genitive. The word “double” captures the problem Bill laid out: it uses two methods to show possession where only one is needed. “Of” creates possessives. So does an apostrophe plus an S. Here's my recent column that takes a thorough look at what's wrong — and what's right — with double possessives.