Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gerund vs. present participle

The charge (raised in an xword blog on Sunday) is that "[something] may have to do with me not being too fond of forced puns..." is grammatically wrong and should read "..with MY [instead of ME] not being fond of.."

First a general principle: If you claim that something is grammatically wrong, state the rule that is being violated, not just what you think the correct version should be like--in the present case, WHY should ME be replaced by MY?

I can think of no reason b/c both versions appear correct to me. In "with me being not too fond of..." "being" is the present participle of "to be", which modifies "me", the object case of the pronoun "I", which has to be selected after "with" b/c "with" is a preposition and requires the object case (so much for people who think "between you and I" is correct--nonsense! "between you and me" is correct--but I digress).

But "with my being not too fond of.." is also correct b/c now "being" is the object of the preposition, specifically, it is a verb turned into a noun, i.e. it is a gerund, which can take a possesive pronoun like "my" as well as direct and indirect objects.

When I write comments for a blog, I prefer colloquial English (within the limitations that come with me [sic!] not being a native speaker), which by and large makes me avoid gerunds b/c they sound, to me at least, always somewhat stilted.


ArtLvr said...

Hi Ulrich -- Welcome back! Hope you enjoyed your trip...

You're correct about "between you and me" -- the use of "I" is not correct., not matter how often you hear it these days. I love watching CSI Miami, for example, but cringe at their constant mistakes --

You are mistaken about having a choice with the possessive plus gerund, however: "my being fond of" is correct, and the use of "me" is not correct in such a phrase. If you can insert a comma, then OK, but it's not the same meaning. Example: "He saw me, being closer than I'd thought."

Your German words are delightful. Keep it up!


Ulrich said...

First of all--thanks for the encouragement!

I do not have an English grammar book in front of me (I find them incomprehensible anyway b/c I grew up with grammar terms taken from the Latin grammar, which of course don't really apply to English anymore, but do they have to be replaced by notions that appear exceedingly ill-defined and riddled with exceptions?)

Anyway, if I may argue argue from examples, consider this: "I saw him shopping at the Farmer's Market." If this is correct, "him shopping at the farmer's market" is a correct (direct) object following the transitive verb "saw". So, why can't I put such an object after a preposition, which also requires a direct object: "The sight of him shopping...". Why is this incorrect? Notice that I am NOT replacing "his" with "him"--I never formed the gerund b/c I do not want to say "I saw his shopping...".

Now if the pattern [preposition] [personal pronoun in the object case] [present participle modifying the pronoun] is correct, "with me not being fond of..." is also correct b/c it exactly follows the pattern.

Ulrich said...

As a follow-up to my latest post, it should be clear by now that I do not consider the "shopping" in "I saw him shopping" a gerund--so, everything you read about gerunds doesn't apply. The real question, then (and one I'm interested in), is this: Is it grammatically correct to modify a noun or pronoun object with a following present (or past) participle?

All my examples illustrate that this construction is very common in colloquial speech--who would declare it ungrammatical?

humorlesstwit said...

First, the disclaimer: I know absolutely nothing about grammar. Embarrassingly so.

I think artlvr is correct: The sight of him, shopping for blah, nauseated me, vs The sight of his shopping for S&M paraphernalia nauseated me. I think the key is what is being espied, him, or his shopping.

Ulrich said...

I disagree with artlvr and agree with your second paragraph. That you can follow an object pronoun with a participle seems to be demonstrated by this example: It makes me sad when I see him [pers. pronoun as object] so distressed [past participle modifying the pronoun]. Clearly, there is no gerund involved, so the whole isue does not arise. Now, if we can use a past particple in this position, we can certainly use a present participle: It makes me sad when I see him suffering. Following the first example, I see no reason why "suffering" cannot be considered a participle in the second case, as opposed to a gerund.

Another example (following your precedent and not involving pronouns): "I see the boy running" is not the same as "I see the boy's running"--so, why declare the first sentence grammatically incorrect? Only b/c some grammarians refuse to interpret the "-ing" word as a participle? Sorry, but this is not good enough for me.

Mike said...

OK, I followed you over here from rex to read your explanation. Here's what I can offer-

The example that was called into question-"...me not being..."-here being is in fact a gerund and therefore needs to be modified with the possessive. Your second example, "...him shopping..." shopping is not a gerund and is in fact the present participle which has been shortened from the "Deep Structure" of:

I saw him. He was shopping at the Farmer's Market.

Anyway-I agree with your comments on prescriptivism/colloquialism. Just wanted to try to shed some light.

Ulrich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ulrich said...

@mike: Why is "me not being" a gerund but "him shopping" is not?
How about this deep structure:

..it has to do with me. I am not fond of forced puns.

Ulrich said...

The Grammar Book by Marianne Celce-Murcia and Diane Larsen-Freeman (2nd ed.) sanctions on page 644 explicitly the prepositional constructions involving -ing words that I've been trying to defend. Here are two of the examples they consider correct:

With the snow melting in the sun, there won't be any cold drinks left.

With the students drawing trees, the kindergarten teacher could relax.

Do we need to get any closer to the sentences I've been criticized for?

[Acknowledgment: Thanks to my lovely wife, whose textbooks are used extensively in ESL courses, for giving me the above source.]

heika said...

Although Ulrich is clearly answering a different question, when is an "ing" form of a verb a participle and when is it a gerund requiring a possessive modifier (grammatical function is the deciding factor), those adamantly convinced that the possessive modifier must accompany gerunds should take a look at the grammargrinch's website, where you will discover that the Danish philologist, Otto Jesperson, author of "The Philosophy of Grammar" and perhaps the world's foremost grammarian, did not agree:

"Jespersen devoted the bulk of his On Some Disputed Points in English Grammar (Society for Pure English Tract No. XXV (1926)) to an analysis of the possessive with the gerund, and proved conclusively that a gerund without the possessive is perfectly grammatical, very common, and standard."

There are numerous sources on the web that describe Jesperson's position on this burning topic but the grammargrinch's is one of the most succinct.


Mike said...

I must first remind you that I am not telling you that you are "wrong", and would never publicly criticize anyone's usage. I'm just enjoying a bit of grammatical exploration...

Your deep structure(I don't know if I'm using this term correctly) for the example has one flaw-the verb is not in participle form, therefore the transformation(again, I'm loosely applying grammatical terms here) would give you something completely different.

Regarding your last examples, I have no idea, I give up...

For a great book on many topics in English and languages in general, including an insightful chapter on the grammar police, I recommend "The Language Instinct" by Stephen Pinker.

Ulrich said...

@mike: I'm also enjoying this chat on grammar--to be able to do this independently of restrictions on other blogs is the main reason why I created this one in the first place (see my initial post "Hello world"). I also have absolutely no personal stakes in the outcome of the present debate, i.e. I could happily live with being refuted. But I will defend the position I took--just for the sake of keeping the debate going--until I feel that I have really been proven wrong--and so far, with the latest sources my wife and heika contributed, that seems to become more and more unlikely.

Mike said...

Funny, after I finished my post I read the one previous to mine on the grammargrinch. The second post on that blog is bashing the exact book that I just recommended-

Thanks for the forum

ArtLvr said...

Oh dear -- you all are making it too complicated! The point to determine is the object of the phrase.:

I saw him, and he seemed to be upset. He said yes, he'd lost his dog. I sympathized with his suffering.

You can't say: I sympathized with him suffering.

Leave out a prepositional phrase. "I recognized his suffering". You can't say I recognized him suffering.

With either a transitive verb or a prepositional phrase, you either use a pronoun or a noun as object, not both. If the object is a gerundive verb form being used as a noun, then the modifier must be in adjectival form.

Also, if the gerundive as noun is the subject of a sentence, the same applies.

Some people never learned much grammar. Their not having learned the fine points does not make their choices acceptable. ("Them not having learned" etc. is simply wrong, as would be "They".)

You are speaking of their learning, or their not learning. A negative or a past tense or a passive voice changes nothing : Their not having learned is too bad! Their not having been taught properly, ditto. Personal adjective required, not pronoun.


ArtLvr said...

p.s. As I noted in the beginnig, there is a tendency to employ a pronoun for emphasis -- like a French "moi", or "myself"-- but it needs to be set off by a comma.

Me, not being fond of nit-picking, I just ignore it.

Leave that "Me" out and you have the same meaning.

My not being fond of nit-picking means I can ignore it. This last example shows a phrase "not being" " used as subject of the verb "means".

Some just write "IMO" or "IMHO"..... Now I really must pack!!!


Ulrich said...

The point I’m making is that

With the snow melting in the sun, there won't be any cold drinks left.

is a perfectly fine sentence and does not improve if it is changed to

With the snow’s melting in the sun, there won't be any cold drinks left.

Jesperson and The Grammar Book confirm this. I have nothing to add to this and will leave it at that.

However, the whole debate brings out a more general point that I have become keenly aware of, namely, that grammarians (and other theoreticians) can get trapped in their own terminology when they pursue bogus issues that have nothing to do with the reality of a spoken language. This point was brought home to me when I read Bodmer’s The Loom of Language, the most important book on language I ever read--it changed my view of grammar for ever.

For example, I pondered for years the implications of the fact that the sun is masculine and the moon feminine in all languages I know that have a grammatical gender (le soleil, la lune, il sole, la luna etc) except for German, where the sun is feminine (die Sonne) and the moon masculine (der Mond): Could it be that German maintained some vestige of the old Germanic matriarchy? But then I read Bodmer, who points out the difference between natural and grammatical gender in that grammatical gender is essentially arbitrary. Furthermore, he maintains that grammarians did themselves (and us) a disservice by labelling the gender categories they observed masculine, feminine, neutral, as opposed to, say, gender A, gender B, gender C. The arbitrariness of grammatical gender in German is nicely demonstrated by the fact that in the dialect I spoke as a child, Wurst (sausage) is masculine and Schirm (umbrella) is neuter, whereas in high German, Wurst is feminine and Shirm is masculine. You cannot say that the dialect got it wrong b/c it existed before high German was created (essentially by declaring the dialect spoken around Hannover the standard version of German). Once I understood the arbitrariness of grammatical gender and therefore of the labels used, my sun/moon problem turned out to be a non-issue.

I suggest that something similar is happening in the gender vs. participle debate. Who is to say that the -ing word in

With the snow melting in the sun, there won't be any cold drinks left.

is a gerund? If you consider it a present participle, as I do, gerund rules no longer apply and the whole issue goes away. To me, it’s that simple, and that is also the point of The Grammar Book. The English grammar we know is not a divine, unchanging law handed to us by some god, but an after-the-fact construct by grammarians, who are human and therefore prone to making both good and bad choices--let’s stick with the good ones and get rid of the bad ones.

scriberpat said...

thanks ulrich for all of this interesting reading. I have printed it all out and shall read it now. by the way, i could not state the rule when i first questioned the "ing" word modification 'cause i didn't remember it was called a gerund and I didn't know the rule.

I wouldn't have been able to ask my question then, according to your "First a general principle:" Didn't you notice that that was my question bye-the-bye? That I didn't know what the rule was and I was asking for help?

So -- thanks again for all the help. If my husband has anything to say after he reads it all, I shall let you know. Love, Patti.

Heika said...

To follow up on Ulrich's point about the often arbitrary nature of grammatical rules (and to me the "snow melting" example really makes his point. I think the apostrophe actually slows down the processing of the meaning) William Safire says that Otto Jesperson battled with Henry Watson Fowler, the Brit who wrote "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage," over the gerund plus the possessive. Fowler insisted the possessive with the gerund was necessary, Jesperson did not agree. Based on the grammar books I know--and I know a lot of them; I used to teach grammar to adults getting their GED--Fowler won the argument for a very long time, and it's only recently that I saw a reference to the apostrophe being optional when it doesn't clarify meaning. Why Fowler won isn't clear; in other words,he didn't have the better argument or more examples than Jesperson, all of which is to say that the rule which emerged was rather arbitrary. And for Patti, yes do let us know what your husband has to say about all this because in a way, he got the whole thing started.

mac said...

Reading all these comments made me realize that I have a poor knowledge of English grammar terminology; I studied English in Holland, of course using the Dutch grammatical terms....
I think Artlvr puts into words what I think is right on this issue. And Ulrich, you are so right about the "I" instead of
"me" mistakes that seem to be made more and more, and by people who should know better!