A correspondent writes about an earlier post headed 'On Shakespeare being Irish', worrying about the grammar rather than the content. Shouldn't it be 'On Shakespeare's being Irish', he asks? 'Has grammar changed?', he adds.
No, it hasn't - at least, not in the last 200 or so years. As with many issues of this kind, the arguments go back to the 18th century and the rise of prescriptivism. The construction without the possessive is the older one, and can be traced back to the Middle Ages. But the one with the possessive was felt to be more elegant and grammatically correct, and it was given the strongest possible support by Fowler (in his 1926 Dictionary). Indeed, rarely does Fowler attack a usage more intensely than in his entry on what he calls the 'fused participle'. A brief quotation:
'It is perhaps beyond hope for a generation that regards upon you giving as normal English to recover its hold upon the truth that grammar matters. Yet every just man who will abstain from the fused participle (as most good writers in fact do, though negative evidence is naturally hard to procure) retards the process of corruption; & it may therefore be worth while to take up again the statement made above, that the construction is grammatically indefensible.'
Not surprisingly, then, the issue rumbles on.
The two constructions actually express slightly different meanings. The non-possessive one highlights the verb phrase, whereas the possessive one highlights the noun phrase. In 'On Shakespeare being Irish', it's the 'being Irish' that is the focus. It's thus more likely to be used in a context where the implied contrast is with some other verb phrase, such as 'being Welsh or 'being English'. In 'On Shakespeare's being Irish', the person is the focus, so it's more likely to be used where there is a contrast with someone else. I used the first construction in my post, because the content was on the interpretation of original pronunciation, not on the person using it.
However, the prescriptive attitude has had an effect, in that over the years the use of the possessive has come to be associated with formal expression. There's therefore a stylistic contrast involved, with the non-possessive form sounding more informal. This is especially the case when the participial form is used as the subject of a clause, as in 'Going by train is out of the question', where we have the choice of:
John's going by train is out of the question.
John going by train is out of the question.
The stylistic contrast is especially noticeable when there's an initial pronoun:
My going by train is out of the question.
Me going by train is out of the question.
The contentious character of the non-possessive construction is lessened if it is 'buried' later in the sentence:
It is out of the question, my going by train.
It is out of the question, me going by train.
This is presumably why my post heading was noticed. The style I use ('On X') keeps the usage in initial position. If I'd headed the post 'On discussing the argument about Shakespeare being Irish', I wonder if my correspondent would have picked up on the point?