Student Stumper 9: My friend v. a friend of mine

QUESTION: I heard someone say a friend of mine. Is this different from my friend?

ANSWER:  They could be seen as synonymous structures. Couldn’t we introduce a friend both ways?

I’d like you to meet my friend, Bill.

I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Bill.

However, if we take the time to ponder the two structures, we may discover some subtle differences. Let’s start with the fact that sometimes we have more than one way to express possession. Consider another example that’s similar but doesn’t make use of a possessive adjective or possessive pronoun:

The couple’s families and friends attended the beach wedding.

The families and friends of the couple attended the beach wedding.

Here again we have a choice of two ways to express possession or belonging, and one of the choices is the of-construction.  Do we have this choice of alternatives with all nouns? No.

Let’s recall the limitations of the apostrophe. Use of the apostrophe to show possession is most common for people and animals. We also use it for organizations like a company, a committee, and the administration. According to Greenbaum and Quirk, “[g]eographical names take the genitive inflection, especially when they are used to imply human collectivity” (104). This would mean the following are all appropriate and acceptable to use:

Lisa’s mother

The cat’s fur

The school board’s decision

Pittsburgh’s football team

It would also mean that the following would be less acceptable:

The house’s condition

Boston’s highways

Alternative structures might be:

The condition of the house

The highways in Boston

But rules are not always clear when we’re dealing with objects that are inanimate and without gender. For example, should we say:

The Sun’s diameter OR the diameter of the sun?

The ship’s captain OR the captain of the ship?

Look online and you’ll find many uses of the apostrophe as well as the of-construction to indicate the genitive with words like sun and ship.

Let’s consider a larger context and see if that helps us decide on a structure when two alternatives exist.

Context A:

The Earth has a diameter of about 12,742 kilometers.

– Really? And what about the diameter of the Sun?

Context B:

Class, today we’re going to learn about the Sun.

The Sun’s diameter is about 1,392,000 kilometers.

While exploring the choice between the two structures, Greenbaum and Quirk discuss the role of focus and the order of new and old information (387-88). I would argue that these two factors explain why the of-construction works better in Context A and the use of the apostrophe works better in Context B. In Context A, the Sun is the focus. In Context B, diameter is new information. Would you agree?

Greenbaum and Quirk also consider the possible need for clarity in number (103-5). They use these examples:

George’s sister is coming to stay with us.                             

= ambiguous (How many sisters are there? Just one?)

                One of George’s sisters is coming to stay with us.

= clear (He has more than one sister.)

If we now return to our original examples, I don’t think we can argue that one or the other structure puts more focus on Bill, but I do think there’s a nuance regarding number:

               I’d like you to meet my friend, Bill.                           

= ambiguous (How many friends do you have? Just one?)

                I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Bill.                              

= clear (You have more than one friend.)

What are your thoughts? What possible differences do you see between my friend and a friend of mine?             


Greenbaum S. and Quirk R. (1995). A student’s grammar of the English language. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. jewell mullins says:

    i learn a lot from just reading this one page thank you Jennifer for this site

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