OUR GERUNDING WANES.

I was taught in school, half a century or so ago, that you had to use a possessive with a gerund (or “verbal noun”): I resented his saying that, not I resented him saying that. I never gave it much thought, but Mark Liberman has, and he posted about it a few days ago. He quotes the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage to the effect that both forms have been used for quite some time, occasionally by the same person in the same document (Ian Ballantine, in a letter dated Aug. 5, 1939, wrote both “in spite of the book being out of print for many years” and “in spite of the company’s not having any intention of issuing a new edition”). In typically pithy fashion, MWDEU says:

From the middle of the 18th century to the present time, […] grammarians and other commentators have been baffled by the construction. They cannot parse it, they cannot explain it, they cannot decide whether the possessive is correct or not.

So Mark did one of his Breakfast Experiments, checking several corpuses and presenting the results in a striking graph. His conclusions:

* The difference between writing and speech is very large.
* Since about 1950, writing has apparently been moving in the direction of speech.
* There’s some indication that spoken norms may also be changing, in the same anti-genitive direction.
* It’s possible that there was a change in the anti-genitive direction in the late 19th century, perhaps held up by prescriptive forces (?).

He has continued the investigation here, and I look forward to reading more about it; in any event, I’m glad to have been able to shed yet another unconsidered shibboleth from grammar-school days. Use the possessive or not; it’s all good!

Comments

  1. This is a funny one. The possessive form just sounds really pleasant to me and it always makes me happy when I think to use it, even though it is not at all a “natural” pattern of speech for me.

  2. Hmm, based on what I was taught, the possessive is the correct form, because (so I was taught) a gerund is a verb acting as a noun, and therefore follows all the normal rules about nouns.

  3. It seems to me that both are correct, but with slightly different meanings. If the possessive implies that the -ing word is a gerund (verbal noun), surely the pronoun implies that it is a present participle (verbal adjective)? If so, “I resented his saying that” means “I resent the saying of those words by him” (the act of saying is what I resent), while “I resented him saying that” means “I resent him, while [or when or since] he is saying those words” (the person saying the words is what/whom I resent). Not a huge difference, but a difference, and either sounds good to me. What do the experts say?
    In languages in which the gerund and present participle have different forms, the distinction would be clearer. I would give Latin examples, but the Latin gerund isn’t used as a direct object, and I don’t think the infinitive, which is used as the direct object verbal noun, can take a possessive.

  4. Sorry, I switched from past tense “resented” to present “resent” in mid-stream, but that shouldn’t affect my point.

  5. Honeymoon update: we’re drunk, playing pool at 1am in a cabin in the smokey mountains. The last game ended thusly:

    Me: Son of a bitch! I made it, but I scratched, so you win. Five fuck balls on the table and you win.
    Her: Rack ‘em!

    I think it was Fowler dubbed the accusative+(ing) construction a fused participle — something, for whatever the fuck reason, to be avoided.
    We’re also reading each other Auden’s poems, notably “Out on the lawn I lie in bed.” Astonishing poem.
    But it’s my turn, I’ve just been reminded, how rudely you wouldn’t believe…

  6. Seeing is believing.

  7. In this — if you’ll pardon the expression — case, could the possessive have anything to do with using a subjunctive mood?
    How are you coming with Frederick Seidel, Jamessal? I can’t decide whether I like his work when he himself is such a bounder.

  8. What the hell are you doing here, jamessal? Get back to your honeymoon! (Or, as your bride says, “Rack ‘em!”)

  9. could the possessive have anything to do with using a subjunctive mood?
    No, except in the sense that they’re both (apparently) vanishing phenomena.

  10. @Dr. Weevil: No, not really. On the face of it, there’s some logic in that, but it doesn’t really work in explaining real examples. Google turns up examples like “But enough of me being facetious” and “those tips made all the difference in me being able to really save some serious cash each summer” and “Of course, me standing there made them come over and ask why I wasn’t playing and try to talk me into it”; in all cases, your rule would have “my”. (Note that the last example has “me standing there” as a subject — *”I standing there” would be impossible.)
    It seems to me that with this type of distinction, semantics frequently defies syntax — “I hate people who VP” usually seems to mean “I hate when people VP” rather than literally “If you VP, then I hate you” — so in cases where the syntax isn’t already clear-cut, I think it’s probably impossible to identify what the literal semantics should be.

  11. Once you let the beggars off with stuff like “Him saying that he’s a hopey, changey fellow …..” then soon they’ll be telling us that “He saying that he’s a hopey, changey fellow …”. Stop ‘em now.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    What Dr. Weevil said: it’s reanalysis.
    When I resent him doing that, I resent him, not the doing; and the doing isn’t a gerund anymore, it’s a present participle. At least inside my skull.
    This is he, looking out of the window.
    I see him looking out of the window.
    I resent him looking out of the window.
    Of course, German is probably biasing me. A literal translation of “his looking out of the window” would be sein Aus-dem-Fenster-Schauen; that’s just too convoluted to bear. It’s icky and squicky.

  13. David: That reminds me of the verb an-zu-denken-fing in Robert Scott’s German translation of “Jabberwocky”, “Der Jammerwoch”.

  14. As I see it, Dr Weevil is right and Ran is wrong.
    It’s a matter of semantic subtlety. In ‘But enough of me being facetious’ stress is on ‘me’, harking back to someone else having been facetious. If I were to choose to stress ‘facetious’, ‘me’ would become ‘my’. In terms of parts of speech, ‘me’, object of a preposition, is also subject of the participle ‘being’ (usually thought of as adjectival). ‘My’ is an adjective modifying the gerund ‘being’, which is object of the preposition.
    But analysis in terms of parts of speech obfuscates the matter. The important thing is conveyance of shade of meaning. Those who don’t feel the shades of meaning use either ‘me’ or ‘my’ indiscriminately, and of course wonder why they are ‘corrected’.
    As with the subjunctive, or use of singular noun to indicate essence rather than number, we are in the realm of shapeshifting (of words or thoughts).

  15. iakon, I think you’re taking a particular and trying to turn it into a general. Yes, there’s a real difference between “But enough of me talking about me all the time – why don’t you talk about me?”, and “But enough of my talking about me all the time – why don’t you talk about me?”,where in the first example the first “me” is stressed in a way that “my” isn’t. But I don’t see any difference in meaning or nuance between “He was tired of me talking about you all the time” and “He was tired of my talking about you all the time”.

  16. It seems to be irresistible for many speakers to try to attribute semantic differences to formal variation; this came up with regard to gray/grey a while back.

  17. I reckon that me adding something to the discussion won’t count for much, so I’ll stay out of it.

  18. aqilluqqaaq says:

    Orthography isn’t morphology, or syntax, and semantic values aren’t attributive. What appears to be irresistible is to regard grammatically formal properties of language as symptomatic of meaning, rather than as necessary and sufficient conditions for it. The notion of language as a vehicle for meaning is a metaphor – the distinction between the two is not substantive, but purely analytic.

  19. michael farris says:

    I’m hurried, in a Bucharest internet cafe while wating for confirmation of an email I sent)
    Anyway, for me, as I mentioned at LL, there are some times where I perceive a difference, mainly in that the form with the possessive seems more real or concrete than the oblique which in such contrasting pairs is more doubtful or hypothetical but a lot (maybe most) of the time there is no difference.
    I think the difference, when it happens for me, is related to the fact that in English possessed nouns are assumed to be real, a sentence like “My big green house doesn’t exist” are decidedly odd in English, though they’re perfectly normal in many languages.

  20. Amazing. It seems that one can penetrate so deeply into the analytical thicket that one loses sight — If language is not a manipulable vehicle for meaning, then there is no mind-to-mind communication, we’re all just talking to ourselves. And that fits into something I’ve been thinking for decades: the purpose of language appears to be expression, rather than communication.
    In that case I think I’ll go back to my book. Writers are more obviously attempting to communicate, and I like to know what they’re thinking, even if I disagree.

  21. Writers are more obviously attempting to communicate, and I like to know what they’re thinking, even if I disagree.
    Are you claiming we’re not attempting to communicate? That’s pretty insulting. Just because someone disagrees with you about the putative semantic distinction between the presence or absence of a genitive in this particular construction doesn’t mean they’re just babbling randomly for the sake of “expression” or talking to themselves.

  22. John Emerson says:

    I think that Iakon was responding to Aqilluqqaaq’s “The notion of language as a vehicle for meaning is a metaphor “.

  23. Maybe (although he might have made that clear), but if so, he seems to me to have been wildly overinterpreting it, and the business about “I think I’ll go back to my book” seems to suggest that hanging around here is pointless because we’re all just expressing ourselves rather than communicating. Of course, I may be wildly overinterpreting him.

  24. Is “Our gerunding wanes” an anagram? “Gerard Manley Hopkins”, perhaps? It is redolent of a Times (of London) crossword.

  25. Sorry, Hat, but I was stung. I felt misunderstood because no-one spoke to what I actually said. But my reaction was childish. Once again I have to relearn.

  26. (Bravo, Iakon! If more people could examine and defuse their own umbrage, this would be a happier world. Or a more peaceable one, anyway.)
    The two constructions feel slightly, but only slightly, different to me, the genitive a little stand-offish and impersonal, the accusative a little familiar and personal. But probably, yes, this is largely the grey/gray effect :-)

  27. Bravo, iakon, indeed!
    Is “Our gerunding wanes” an anagram?
    No, just an overly cutesy attempt to get the construction in question into the post title.

  28. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be an anagram; it’s a pretty nice assortment of letters. I’ve been working on it a little, but no luck. For a minute I got excited about EWES RUNNING AGROUND, which I thought Crown would enjoy — a sort of sheepwreck story — but, alas, it needed one more N than we have.

  29. Thanks. Ø. “Ur-gerundings on wane”, then.
    It’s not cutesy. I feel we don’t give enough praise to your inspired titles, Language.

  30. I’ve always loved using both constructions. Extra fun is that the Russian word ‘ерунда’ ‘erundá’ ‘nonsense’ is reckoned to be based on some form, perhaps the nom.-voc.-acc. pl. (as a sort of collective), of Latin ‘gerundium’.

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