Monday, 20 December 2010

On me/my being right

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?


Annie said...

I was taught both versions of the construction, both as equally correct. But I didn't know many consider the one without the possessive informal. I even felt it was grammatically more elaborate!
Actually, the 's' sounds awkward when pronouncing the construction, doesn't it. And it's not that frequent to encounter contexts where the stylistic emphasis would be very decisive:
e.g. Professor Crystal being a genius is no news!
Professor Crystal's being a genius is no news!

Professor is a genius, anyway!

David Crosbie said...

There's a wonderfully elegant treatment in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik (section 17.54), presenting a gradience from
1. some paintings of Brown's
at the noun end of the scale to
14. Brown is painting his daughter
at the verb end.

Somewhere near the noun end come

4. Brown's deft painting of his daughter is a delight to watch.
5. Brown's deftly painting his daughter is a delight to watch.
6. I dislike Brown's painting his daughter.
7. I dislike Brown painting his daughter.

They gloss these as:

4. It is a delight to watch while Brown deftly paints his daughter.
5.either Brown's action of painting or while Brown paints
6. I dislike either the fact or the way Brown does it
7. when she ought to be at school.

DC said...

Indeed. Readers might like to see my account of this gradient in an earlier post ('On nominalisations').

kKrIsH said...

Dear Sir,

I have a question about your post. You said, "The non-possessive one highlights the verb phrase, whereas the possessive one highlights the noun phrase."

In Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, the example and explanation are as below:

Do you mind me asking a question?

Do you mind my asking a question?

In the first sentence, the queried objection is to 'me', as opposed to other members of the group, asking a question. In the second example, the issue is whether a question may be asked at all.

This contradicts your post, no?

Am I missing something here? Could you clarify?

Please forgive my ignorance - I am just a non-native speaker learning English.

Krishna K.

DC said...

To obtain the contrast claimed by S&W, you would need to have an intonational focus on me; without it, both sentences would have the same implication (apart from the stylistic contrast I was talking about). I'm afraid that intonation isn't something that S&W, or style guides in general, pay much attention to.

Fagburn said...

Just listening to you on Radio 4 after reading you for years.
I look forward to reading your blog when I'm sober.


Maddy said...

Not radio 4, although as an expat I would have enjoyed that version - instead I listened to you on NPR - thoroughly enjoyed the whole programme, thank you.

Sarah said...

This possessive version was one of the forms of speech I deliberately dropped when as a teenager I chose to speak like those around me in stead of the "posh" way my parents spoke. I changed accent from RP to local and modified grammar where my family's was seen as snobbish.

Optional Name said...

Judging as a person whose first language is Latvian, I find that the problem with catching the nuances in this issue seems to be embedded, so to speak, in the principles of English grammar and in trying to keep it short and simple.

The latter observation means that one might as well choose to say 'I dislike the way Brown is painting his daughter', or 'I dislike the fact that Brown is painting his daughter'. But there is little excuse for preferring longer sentences in colloquial situations, I guess.

The former observation relates to the different principles observable in languages in relation to the usage and functions of verbs.

To put it simply, in Latvian it is impossible to say 'The book says that...' because inanimate things cannot speak. Instead we have to say 'It is said in the book ...' And this principle means here that this 'me going by train/my going by train' should rest with the doer. The action of going by train occurs in connection with the person, he is doing the 'going by train', so, from the viewpoint of a Latvian, it should suffice to mention three things - who is doing what and how: he is going by train.

Again, the train cannot move about aimlessly and on its own - it is used for transportation and there's a man controlling its operation.

Neil Coffey said...

It's worth noting that whether you use the form "my" or "me", there is an argument for saying that the gerund is still ostensibly 'more verbal than nominal' overall. Contrast cases like this where an adverb, not an adjective, would generally be used to modify the gerund:

His/The headmaster's unfairly dismissing the teacher.
Him/The headmaster unfairly dismissing the teacher.
*His/The headmaster's unfair dismissing the teacher.
*Him/The headmaster unfair dismissing the teacher.

with the case of the overtly nominal 'dismissal', where the adjective, not the adverb, would be used, and where introducing the complement with the preposition 'of' is mandatory:

The headmaster's unfair/*unfairly dismissal *(of) the teacher.

Where -ing form is ostensibly 'nominal', it occurs in a structure similar to the latter:

The headmaster's unfair/*unfairly dismissing *(of) the teacher.

So given this range of constructions, I would submit that it's not clear to what extent using the possessive form as the subject of the gerund really makes the gerund much more 'nominal', and that the prescriptive preference for the possessive implies a failure to consider this range of possible constructions.