Q: When I wrote my mother’s obit several years ago, the expression “we mourn her loss” stopped me, since the loss was ours, not hers. The usage doesn’t make logical sense, but I’m assuming it’s idiomatic and correct. Can you advise?
A: In a usage such as “we mourn her loss,” the pronoun “her” is a genitive adjective, not a possessive.
As we’ve written several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is much broader and includes many categories in addition to possession. So while a genitive construction may look possessive, it doesn’t necessarily imply ownership.
A genitive adjective—whether a pronoun or noun with an apostrophe—can indicate a wide range of relationships, including possession (“the boy’s jacket”); source or origin (“the family’s history”); date (“Wednesday’s mashed potatoes”); type or description (“a women’s college”); part (“the car’s engine”); measure (“a night’s sleep”); duration (“three years’ experience,” “a day’s drive”); or other close association (“a summer’s day,” “a doctor’s appointment,” “his death”).
In the case of “we mourn his loss,” the phrase “his loss,” like “his death,” expresses something associated with him.
Often genitive relationships can be expressed with “of” instead of an apostrophe or a pronoun that looks possessive. For instance, “the history of the family,” “the engine of the car,” “a night of sleep,” “three years of experience,” “a day of summer,” “the loss of him.”
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains in its entry on “his” used in genitive constructions: “In some cases the objective genitive is expressed periphrastically by of him (e.g. ‘his defence, I mean your defence of him, was well conducted’).”
In its entry for the noun “loss,” the OED includes a sense that’s been around since the early 15th century: “The being deprived by death, separation, or estrangement, of (a friend, relative, servant, or the like).” The OED adds that in context, “loss” often means “the death (of a person regretted).”
So this sense of “loss” is used in two ways. The “loss” can be associated with either the survivors (“Frank’s widow still mourns her loss”) or the dead (“Frank’s widow still mourns his loss”). Both of those are genitive constructions, but here we’ll concern ourselves with the second kind, in which “his loss” means “the loss of him” (that is, “his death”).
Most of the OED’s examples for this use of “loss” are genitive constructions with “of.” This is the earliest: “For los of frendes or of any þynge [thing].” From Instructions to Parish Priests, by John Myrc (also known as John of Lilleshall), probably written before 1420.
And here’s a mid-17th-century “loss of” example: “Ther be many sad hearts for the losse of my Lord Robert Digby.” From James Howell’s Epistolæ Ho-elianæ, Familiar Letters Domestic and Forren (1645). Epistolæ Ho-elianæ is also a genitive construction and means “Letters of Howell” in Latin.
This OED example shows “loss” modified by the pronoun “whose”: “[Died] John Case Browne, esq. whose loss will be severely felt … by the whole neighbourhood.” From a death notice in the Monthly Magazine, London, June 1798.
Elsewhere in the dictionary there are other examples, from the 18th century onward, of “loss” modified by pronouns that look like possessives (“her loss,” “his loss,” “their loss”). But in these cases, the pronouns refer to the dead, and the constructions are genitive rather than strictly possessive:
“But Posterity will do Her Justice, and perhaps the present Age may live to regret Her Loss.” A reference to the late Queen Anne in “English Advice, to the Freeholders of England” (1714), a political tract by Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester.
“His Adventures gave Life and Subsistency to the Colony, and his Loss was their Ruin and Destruction.” A reference to the death of Capt. John Smith, from The History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia (1747), by William Stith.
“Though motherless, though worse than fatherless, bereft from infancy of the two first and greatest blessings of life, never has she had cause to deplore their loss.” A reference to the orphaned heroine’s parents in Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina (1778).
We’ll end with an example from Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” (1852): “Let the bell be toll’d … / And the volleying cannon thunder his loss.”