A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Gwen Rehrig tweeted a poll to ask if this sentence is acceptable to American English speakers:
As you can see, over 80% of people said it was either definitely or possibly acceptable. I replied that every single student in my grammar class said “Nooope. No way.” when I asked them. 🙂
But hang on, is that sentence unacceptable in Standard English? Dr. Rehrig and John Wilder agreed with me that The lady to whom I was just talking’s mother is a famous author is definitely unacceptable, while The lady I was just talking with’s mother is a famous author is just as acceptable as the original sentence.
I have a corpus linguistics course and I decided to use this as an exercise in searching the large corpora available from the BYU pages. I later added some searches of the Spoken BNC2014, the Corpus of Regional African American Language (CORAAL), and the EnTenTen15 corpus. Altogether, we found 53 occurrences of constructions similar to the original sentence. Here are some examples:
… look at every single inexplicably happy photo on someone you used to go to school with’s Facebook
A gal I used to work with’s uncle owned Bergmans.
The person I dealt with’s help and his follow-up for my reservation was excellent
The formulaic plot that is repeated in every book satisfies the child who is being read to’s expectation of what’s going on
find it’s a notification reminding you of someone you barely even talk to’s birthday. Great, thanks for interrupting my day, social media!
At a crowded restaurant the person I was speaking to’s voice was amplified and the background noise seemed to fade in the background.
The man it was shipped to’s name is Detweiler.
I used the company I work for’s account, because I don’t have my own UPS account.
This is not really my truck, this is the hotel I work for’s truck. So if I get a scratch on it, they take it out of my salary.
I was, however, made to doubt the guy I talked about’s story one day when he went to sleep early
… people you are buying a block of dry ice for the bar you work at’s rave.
wait. we’re living in that guy I never heard of’s house?
The most common prepositions that get the genitive ’s attached to them are to and with (with 17 and 14 occurrences, respectively), but we also found examples of the genitive ’s attached to for, about, at, on, from and of. Because of the relatively few hits we found in the corpora, it seems the construction is most definitely an aspect of spoken language. Indeed, the corpus with the highest occurrences per million words was the Spoken BNC2014 (0.087), even if there was only one hit in the whole corpus. Many of the BYU corpora do not include spoken data, so we shouldn’t expect to find it in there. But there were some examples of it. The constructions that we found are varied because of how English can postmodify nouns with all types of phrases. But it seems like the whole noun phrase is taken as one unit and the genitive is just applied to the end, so long as there’s not a verb at the end. Or at least the head and the post modifier of the noun phrase is treated as if it’s one unit that can take a genitive.
If we take all of the corpora together, we have 194,347,493,221 words. That’s 194 billion words. And it means that genitive ’s is attached to a pronoun about 0.000273 times per million words. Or 2.7 times per trillion words. It’s kind of a rare thing in corpora.
The view from grammars
I also had a look at two English grammars to see what they said about the matter. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English doesn’t really cover it, but they do say that conversation has by far the lowest frequency of genitives compared to journalism, fiction and academic writing. That’s interesting.
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language does discuss this particular kind of genitive. They call it a “phrasal genitive” and they say that its acceptability (like so many other things in English) is dependent on how long and heavy the phrase taking the genitive is. Check it (p. 479):
It is also possible for the [genitive] marking to be located on the last word of a (final) post-head dependent, and these we call phrasal genitives. […] Acceptability decrease as the weight or complexity of the post-head dependent increases, as illustrated in the following examples:
 i a. [the Head of Department’s] speech
b. ?[the Head of the newly formed Asian Studies Department’s] speech
ii a. [the man she was speaking to’s] reaction
b. ?[the man she and her friend had been complaining to’s] reaction
c. #[the man she and her friend had been complaining to so agrily’s] reaction
Example [ia] is acceptable in any style, and [iia] is fully acceptable in informal speech, but the rest are marginal and would generally be avoided in favor of other constructions.
MS Word marks the sentences with of’s and with’s as incorrect, but has no problems with The lady to whom I was just talking’s mother is a famous author. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I did not look for constructions similar to the one that I thought was unacceptable: The lady to whom I was just talking’s mother is a famous author. And I really only looked for the genitive being attached to a preposition and not another part of speech.
I also excluded the News on the Web (NOW) corpus because for some reason I kept getting error messages with my searches, saying that each slot appeared more than 40 million times. I don’t know what that was about and I couldn’t figure it out, but there are examples in there. I’ve seen ‘em!