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I've come across this sentence:
I can't for the life of me understand why someone would do this.


Grammatically, shouldn't it be "mine" instead of "me"?
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Hello Taka

We can say:

1. 'He's no friend of mine.'
2. 'That friend of yours is very strange.'
3. 'He's a friend of theirs.'
4. 'Friends of ours are coming over tonight.'
5. 'Luckily, some friends of his were passing at the time.'

But I can't think of an example where the definite article could precede the 'of mine/his/etc' construction. It seems to be by nature a slightly indefinite construction: 'XYZ of mine' = 'n XYZ from the set {my XYZ}', where n sometimes remains as simply n.

Where there is an element of definiteness, as in example 2 (or e.g. the song 'This old heart of mine'), we seem to use the demonstrative instead; and even there, it has a slightly 'cavalier' air, to my ears, as of a deliberately very rough and ready 'definiteness'.

Though a possible exception has just occurred to me:

6. 'By the way, the friends of mine you were talking about have just died in a car crash.'

'Those friends' would here sound disrespectfully casual; though you could still say it.

(I thought at first 'the life of mine' wasn't possible because we each only have one life, and the construction itself implies a plural; but we each only have one heart ('this old heart of mine'). So the set {XYZ} can contain one XYZ. I notice that 'I can't for this life of mine' sounds less odd than 'I can't for the life of mine'. Perhaps cats say 'I can't for a life of mine understand...')

I look forward to other people's comments. It's an interesting conundrum.

MrP
I believe "for the life of me" doesn't have to follow grammar rules because it's an idiom. And as such "can" have its liberties with grammar. Interesting analysis, Mr P.
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Does this help?-- I googled it:

'For my life, or For the life of me, if my life depended
on it. [Colloq.] --T. Hook.'
In my humble opinion "the life of me" is grammatical. "Something of someone's" means that that thing is currently owned by that person or animate thing. The possessiveness connotes the thing and the person or animate thing are separable. "Something of someone" means that that thing is a permanent belonging of that person or animate thing. Methink in this case we cannot think the two entities are separable. For example, "a bone of the dog's" can mean "a bone that the dog has in his/her mouth", and "a bone of the dog" means a part of the dog's skeleton. Someone's life is a thing that would never be separated from that person until his/her death.

paco
MrP

Thank you for the good analysis. One thing I would like to additionally ask is whether you use "noun of one/one's" differently depending on the form of the person. For example I feel you could say "a lover of hers" but not "a lover of Diana's".

paco
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Yes, I'd agree that 'for the life of me' is both grammatical and idiomatic, whereas 'for the life of mine' seems to be neither; but then too there's the question of why we don't now say 'for my life', as in Mister M's google.

[The bone of the dog's = a sheep's femur] vs [the bone of the dog = its own femur] is a good example. It's interesting that both can = [the dog's bone].

I think I would actually say 'a friend of Diana's'; though I notice that radio presenters, for instance, now seem slightly uncomfortable with the double possessive.

MrP
MrP
why we don't now say 'for my life'

I guess it would be because you use 'for my life' in other senses too often.
There must be a higher purpose for my life.
He will be the best friend for my life.

The answer is too simple? Maybe.

paco
Hello Paco

That seems reasonable: so 'for my life' is reserved. It also has associations of 'in exchange for my life', which would impair the 'if my life depended on it' sense.

The position of 'for the life of me' is interesting. It has its own tune, too:

'I can't for the life of me' – ¯ ¯ ¯ ¬ _ _

(Sort of.)

Or sometimes, the 'life' is highest of all, for extra emphasis. (I can't find a higher dash to illustrate this.)

Perhaps 'for my life' has insufficient syllables to register 'bemused perplexity'...

My example 6 isn't quite right. I don't think —

6a. 'The XYZ of mine' + e.g. '[that] you were talking about...'

— has to relate to a particular kind of situation. It seems general.

MrP
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