"Zara Phillips, a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II’s"

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I did a double-take at a photo caption in yesterday's NY Times: "Zara Phillips, a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II’s, was part of the team that won a silver medal in eventing on Tuesday."


"A granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II's"—why the unusual double genitive (was the term originally Jespersen's)? Despite all the attention given to Zara Phillips, that phrase appears only twice in Google, excluding duplicates, and "a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth's" appears not at all—this against more than 600 hits returned for "a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II" and "a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth." (Google actually estimates 230,000, but you know how much that means.) The double genitive seems to be very rare when speaking of family members, even those of whom one can have an indefinite number, unless the genitive itself is realized as a pronoun ("a granddaughter of yours," "no son of mine"). But of course the construction is fine when one is speaking of friends, colleagues or other alienable relationships. Search me. There's an extensive literature on this construction, from several schools, including contributions by Ray Jackendoff, John Taylor, Barbara Partee, Chris Barker, Gianluca Storto, and a number of others (see the bibliography in Chris's 2008 paper), and no doubt this point is covered somewhere — but where?



  1. Andy Averill said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    "An essay of Trollope's" comes to mind.

  2. Steve Hall said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

    On questions of style, I generally look to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Ed. However, I'm wasn't able to find a specific reference to address this question. (The NYT, I'm sure, has its own house style guide, but I'd be willing to bet the usage you spotted is not there, either.)

    It seems to me, though, that "of" already establishes the possessive; no need to double up with the 's.

  3. David Denison said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

    There's a full discussion in this forthcoming paper:

    Payne, John. in press,2012. The oblique genitive in English. In Kersti Börjars, David Denison & Alan Scott (eds.), Morphosyntactic categories and the expression of possession (Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 199). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  4. James said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

    Steve Hall,
    The NYT Manual of Style and Usage says

    A "double possessive" occurs when ownership is shown twice–first by of and then by 's of the equivalent: a friend of hers; a student of Mr. Dann's. While sometimes unnecessary, the construction is proper. Note, for example, the difference between a picture of Matisse and a picture of Matisse's.

    GN: WRT this and earlier comments, I may not have made the point clear. The issue isn't the status of the double genitive (or however it's described), which despite prescriptive caviling is an unexceptionable and long-established English construction, but its use with relational animate nouns, and specifically the difference in acceptability according to whether when speaking of an inalienable relation (i.e. daughter as opposed to friend) the possessor is expressed with a full NP or a possessive pronoun: e.g., as "a granddaughter of the Queen's," which is quite unusual, and "a granddaughter of hers," which is not.

  5. David Walker said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

    My first reaction was to simplify "A granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II" to "a great-granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth I", but I suppose that's not really simpler (and QE I is not still around, is she?). We could just call the person "Queen Elizabeth IV" and remove all the rest!

  6. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    Not quite on topic but this piece made me think of "The son of Pharaoh’s daughter is the daughter of Pharaoh’s son"…

  7. Erin Lazzaro said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    @David Walker: Although Queen Elizabeth II's mother was a Queen Elizabeth, she was not Queen Elizabeth I.

  8. Andrew said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 1:40 pm


    I suspect there's a joke I'm missing, but QEI is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_I_of_England, not http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Elizabeth_The_Queen_Mother, and if we gave numbers to Queens Consort and Queens Regnant in the same sequence, the current Queen would be QEV

  9. David Walker said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

    … And this granddaughter of QE II is not named "Elizabeth".

  10. juniper said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

    I'd think of it as a poorly executed plural. Technically something along the lines of : "Zara Phillips, a granddaughter from Queen Elizabeth IIs set of grandchildren"

  11. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    "QE I is not still around, is she?" Sadly not: she died in 1603.

  12. Andrew said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    Google seems to return a similar pattern for friends of the Queen('s) –

    Other searches I've done seem to indicate that "a friend of [Proper Name]" is more common than "a friend of [Proper Name]'s"

    GN: But recall that the point is that words like friend and words like granddaughter pattern differently here. "A nephew of the king" gets hundreds of hits (Google reports over a million); "a nephew of the king's" gets just four.

  13. Craig said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    I suppose we could take a poll of where the construction sounds odd, but to me "a granddaughter of the Queen's" sounds perfectly acceptable. Perhaps I don't read enough British newspapers, but what trips me up most is the Roman numerals taken to read as "the second's." Obviously I don't provide the evidence you're looking for, but I would venture to hypothesize that the longer the NP the harder it is to process the second genitive marker "'s"?

  14. Chris C. said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

    @Craig –"Of Queen Elizabeth II's" doesn't sound acceptable to me. I'd expect either "granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II" or "Queen Elizabeth II's granddaughter". Perhaps it's a dialectical thing.

    For me, the dynastic number is weird simply for being present. "Queen Elizabeth" is seems reasonably unambiguous if we're talking about a living granddaughter, which is quite out of the question for Queen Elizabeth I. The present Queen's mother might be the intended grandparent, but she had been most commonly called "The Queen Mother" since the present Queen acceded. That was her official style precisely so that there were not simultaneously two Queen Elizabeths, one regnant and one not.

  15. diogenes said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

    is this not just another example of the consipracy of the failing sub-editors?: Is there real evidence of standards falling over the last 20 years? Why would they not just go with "grand-daughter of Elizabeth ii"? It is a ind of solecism that registers with me occasionally. Is it really getting worse?

  16. Mr Punch said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

    "A granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth's" seems wrong to me in this context, Olympics coverage focusing on the young lady. But would it seem wrong in an article about the Queen herself, or about sporting achievements of the royal family? I'm not so sure.

  17. msH said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    Perhaps the "II" is included because the article is directed at Americans who might not be quite sure whether "Queen Elizabeth" referred to the present Queen or to her mother. It wouldn't be ambiguous to me without the "II", but I'm British and young enough that I would never have referred to the Queen Mother as Queen Elizabeth in my life.

    I agree that it makes it sound wierder, but perhaps they felt it was a necessary compromise.

  18. Chris C. said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

    @msH — I would wager that 9 out of 10 Americans would be unable to tell you the name of the Queen's mother.

  19. Glennis said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 6:51 pm


    In a hasty trawl through one British newspaper, I found a reference to Zara Phillips as "the granddaughter of the Queen", a reference to an event at Hampton Court, "Henry VIII's palace", and a reference to the Queen as "Her Maj".

    It seems that we're quite comfortable using clitics with dynastic Roman numerals, but we rarely bother to refer to the current monarch by name, let alone by number.

  20. DG said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

    It seems to me that someone wrote "the granddaughter of the Queen's" (which is not so egregious) and then an editor fixed it by replacing "Queen" by "Queen Elizabeth II" due to house style rules, and made this sentence much worse. We saw some examples of this with "Queen Elizabeth bee", etc., on this very blog, I think.

  21. Paul said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

    It sounds absolutely fine to me, though it certainly looks slightly odd to have an apostrophe-s after the Roman numerals.

  22. Sili said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

    @msH — I would wager that 9 out of 10 Americans would be unable to tell you the name of the Queen's mother.

    I'll that the bet: The queen's mother was The Queenmother. (aka. mrs Gin)

  23. Andy Averill said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    @Chris C, Helena Bonham Carter, right?

  24. The Ridger said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

    I have to agree with the main point: "a granddaughter of Bob's" sounds odd to mean, the way "a suggestion of Bob's" or "one of Bob's granddaughters" don't. But I would never say "a granddaughter of Bob" and so I suspect DG's hypothesis – autocorrection of "of the queen's -> of Queen Elizabeth II's" is probably right.

  25. The Ridger said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

    …. "sounds odd to me", I meant

  26. David Morris said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

    In Australia, a newspaper would almost certainly say 'the Queen's grand-daughter' (in a weak definite sense, given that she has other grand-daughters – strictly, it would have to be 'one of the Queen's grand-daughters).

    I feel a bit sorry for the other members of the GB riding team. Does anyone outside the sport know any of their names?

    I'm also fascinated by 'eighth over all' in the second line of the caption. I would write 'overall'. 'Over all' sounds very 'Lord of the Rings' to me.

  27. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 2:16 am

    To a British eye "eighth overall" reads as "eighth protective work garment usually worn over ordinary clothes…"

  28. MsH said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 3:17 am

    @Chris C – I am sure you are right, but the NYT would always assume its readers to be the 1 out of 10. And of course Glennis is also right – nobody ever says that. DG's explanation is definitely more convincing.
    What they ended up with does sound basically fine to me, though – a little grave and stilted, but no more so than US newspaper captions normally sound, compared to the home-grown product.

  29. Barbara Partee said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 5:26 am

    Different factors influencing the choice of "of NP" and "of NP's" for possessives are also discussed by Donna Jo Napoli (I don't have the reference) and extensively in Christopher Lyons 1999 book Definiteness. I don't myself know anything specifically relevant to this example. I think it's an attested fact, though, that short names will make the added 's more likely (as noted in the "of Bob's" example above) and long NPs make it less likely, which is one factor that makes your example sound a little odd. Your observation that with pronouns it's obligatorily 'of mine' and not 'of me' fits that pattern — when it gets to pronouns there's not even a choice (for possessives, that is; of course 'a picture of me' is fine, but that doesn't mean the same as 'a picture of mine'.)

  30. Rick Sprague said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 8:10 am

    Presumably, "mine", "yours", "hers", "ours", "theirs", and archaic "thine" (plus zero-inflected "his") in such constructions are the same nominatives as in "me and mine", where they refer collectively to one's family or possessions. In other words, though they have partly possessive semantics, they are grammatically nominatives, not genetives. If "the Queen's" is reanalyzed with similar semantics, it all falls into place, and I think that also speaks to the unalienable relationship question.

  31. CuConnacht said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    When the late William Safire was writing the On Language column for the New York times Magazine, he once complained about such constructions. I wrote to him pointing put the difference beween "a painting of Winston Churchill" i.e. portraying Churchill, and "a painting of Winston Churchill's" i.e. painted or perhaps owned by him. He included a bit of the letter in a book called I Stand Corrected.

    I wonder if the Times Style Manual borrowed and modified my example.

  32. CuConnacht said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    Oh, and what struck me in that caption was "eventing".

  33. John Swindle said,

    August 4, 2012 @ 12:18 am

    What strikes me is that the horse is hovering in the air above those stripey things. It's no wonder that a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II's is holding on for dear life in case of the eventing of calamity.

  34. James said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 6:24 am

    I agree with Mr Punch. Perhaps if the subject matter is the Queen and various things tightly associated to her, then "a granddaughter of the Queen's" is OK, but if the subject is the rider, then you'd say "a granddaughter of the Queen". This is a subtle thing. I think that with "Queen's", the focus shifts to the Queen and the granddaughter becomes secondary, whereas with "Queen" the focus can remain on the granddaughter. Similarly, "a student of Freud" could be any psychoanalyst (I suppose), but "a student of Freud's" would probably suggest one of his actual students. It would be nice to get to the bottom of this.

  35. Joe1959 said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

    @Andrew @Jeremy Wheeler

    The current Queen (reardless of the official line on the matter) is widely regarded as "Elizabeth the I (and II)" in Scotland.

  36. Joe1959 said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

    @Chris C.

    Just like 9 out of 10 Brits.

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