The Grammar Shape-Up Series returns, and this time, we’re talking all about doubles! I tackle the double possessive (is it “a friend of John” or “a friend of John’s”?!), joint possession (is “Sarah and I’s favorite song” a grammatically sound phrase?), and the double negatives you don’t realize you’re saying. Here’s an on-screen lesson plus these easy-to-follow explanations below. Click “play” and freshen up on three tough-to-tackle grammar rules pertaining to doubles.

DOUBLE POSSESSIVES

You can show possession with an apostrophe — “the puppy’s collar” — and with the word “of” — “fine wines of Napa.” The confusion arises when we use both ways at the same time, as in “a friend of Julia’s.” Here, both the preposition “of” and the apostrophe + “s” indicate possession. The general rule is that if it is a person, add the apostrophe + “s”. If it’s an inanimate object, you don’t need the apostrophe + “s”.

CORRECT: “A friend of my brother’s”
INCORRECT: “A friend of my brother”

Since the brother is a person, add the apostrophe + “s”. NOTE: Although this double possessive is allowed, why not just say, “my brother’s friend”?

CORRECT: “A friend of my local library”
INCORRECT: “A friend of my local library’s”

Since the library is not a person, no apostrophe is necessary.

TWO WEIRD EXCEPTIONS

By this logic, “he’s a friend of a friend’s” should be correct, but most people say “a friend of a friend.” As is the case with so many grammar rules in American English, we misspeak these exceptions into wide usage.

Sometimes — albeit rarely — the double possessive is needed to avoid ambiguity. Look at these two sentences:

The estate displayed portraits of the owner.
The estate displayed portraits of the owner’s.

In the first sentence, the portraits are of the owner (as in, they present a likeness of the owner). In the second, the portraits may portray anyone, but they — the inanimate paintings — belong to the owner.

My best rule is to avoid multiple possessives in formal writing. If they pop up, just rewrite the sentence! It will take fewer words and be clearer.

WHEN MULTIPLE NOUNS SHARE POSSESSION

When two or more nouns share possession of something, there are three scenarios that can help you determine the use of apostrophes or pronouns.

MULTIPLE NOUNS WITH JOINT POSSESSION

To show joint possession (when both people jointly own something), use an apostrophe with the last noun only.

CORRECT: Jack and Jill’s pail of water is featured in the nursery rhyme. (Jack and Jill jointly possess one pail.)
CORRECT: Ross, Joey, and Chandler’s adventures on “Friends” are hilarious. (The three men share adventures on “Friends.”)

MULTIPLE NOUNS WITH SEPARATE/INDIVIDUAL POSSESSIONS

This is the trickiest part of this rule, but you probably won’t need it too often. When two or more nouns have ownership, but the ownership is separate, each noun gets the apostrophe + “s” to indicate separate possession.

CORRECT: Lucy’s and Henry’s schedules are packed this week. (Each has his or her own schedule, and they are different.)
CORRECT: Our CEO’s and CFO’s educations are impressive. (Each owns his or her education, but they attained separate educations.)

MIX OF PRONOUNS AND NOUNS

If you take away anything from this episode, let it be this! Too often do I see and hear phrases like “Chloe and I’s anniversary is today.” While it sort of makes sense that this would be correct — you would say, “Chloe and I are celebrating our anniversary today” — “I’s” is never correct. Although you share the anniversary, you’re combining nouns (Chloe) and pronouns (I), so one possessive can’t do the work for the whole subject. Both must become possessive in their own way. Do this by taking the other person out.

CORRECT: Chloe’s anniversary is today.
CORRECT: My anniversary is today.
CORRECT: Chloe’s and my anniversary is today.

INCORRECT: Reid and I’s favorite song
CORRECT: Reid’s and my favorite song
EVEN BETTER: Our favorite song

INCORRECT: This is Joe and I’s issue.
CORRECT: This is Joe’s and my issue.
EVEN BETTER: This is our issue.

Notice how you should always place yourself (the “my”) last. This takes away another version of the other mistake I see often: “Mine and Chloe’s anniversary is today.” NO!

DOUBLE NEGATIVES

In many languages worldwide, it is grammatically incorrect to use anything BUT the double negative! That’s why this rule is tricky for many non-native English speakers. Double negatives also frustratingly pepper musical lyrics and pop culture. The first thing to point out is what is a negative word? We most often find the word “not” (sometimes in a conjunction like “don’t” or “can’t”) or versions of the word “no.”

Some pretty obviously INCORRECT double negatives are:

“I ain’t got no money.”
“You’re not going nowhere.”
“The baby don’t want nothing to eat.”

And some in music:

“I can’t get no satisfaction” — The Rolling Stones
“Ain’t no mountain high enough” — Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
“Ain’t no rest for the wicked” — Cage the Elephant
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” — Bill Withers

There are a few sneaky double negatives that can creep into our conversations and writing in a more subtle way. The three most common culprits are the generally negative words barely, hardly, and scarcely, but others include “rarely” and “seldom.” Words that contain not or no are negative, and these other words are slightly negative, too. By combining them, you’ve said the opposite of what you intended.

INCORRECT: That puppy is so cute, I can’t barely stand it! (two negatives)
CORRECT: That puppy is so cute, I can barely stand it! (one negative)
CORRECT: That puppy is so cute, I can’t stand it! (one negative)

INCORRECT: We can’t hardly wait for the party. (two negatives)
CORRECT: We can hardly wait for the party. (one negative)
CORRECT: We can’t wait for the party. (one negative)

INCORRECT: Arizona had scarcely no rain last year. (two negatives)
CORRECT: Arizona had scarcely any rain last year. (one negative)

IN CONCLUSION

  1. If two or more nouns jointly own something, one apostrophe + “s” on the last noun.
  2. If two or more nouns separately own something, each noun needs an apostrophe + “s”.
  3. If two or more nouns jointly own something, but you have a pronoun, each entity needs to show correct possession.
  4. Never, EVER say “_____ and I’s _____”!
  5. Avoid saying or writing can’t hardly, can’t barely, and scarcely no.

Make sure you check out other Grammar Shape-Up Series episodes:

Grammar Shape-Up Series: Apart vs. A Part
Grammar Shape-Up Series: Fewer vs. Less
Grammar Shape-Up Series: “Couldn’t Care Less”
Lay vs. Lie: Are You Using Them Correctly?
Apostrophes: Are You Over- Or Underusing Them?
FYI: The Acronyms You Need To Know
5 Words You’re Probably Using Incorrectly

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