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Possessives with verbal nouns

Q From Matthew Brand: I was wondering if you could help me with a grammatical matter that has recently been vexing me. When a pronoun is immediately followed by a verbal noun, should it be an ordinary pronoun or a possessive pronoun? Take this example I found in Alice Montgomery’s biography of Katy Perry: “Now scarcely a day went by without them being mentioned in the press.” Shouldn’t it be “their being mentioned”?

A This is a tricky one, not easy to understand or explain.

The construction has been the subject of scholarly disputation for about the past three centuries. A verbal noun, also called a gerund, is the present participle of a verb (ending in -ing) used as a noun. Examples may help to explain the ways these -ing forms are used. In “Fred is driving home” or “Fred has been driving all day”, driving is a participle, part of a compound verb. In “The driving instructor told Fred to stop the car”, it’s a participle acting as an adjective. In “Driving is hard work” it’s a verbal noun — it’s acting like a noun, but has active implications like a verb. Take another example: “Hunting otters is outlawed”. Hunting here is a verbal noun which has both noun force (the concept of hunting) and verb force (the activity of hunting).

The verbal noun was known in Latin, hence its alternative name of gerund, which is from gerundum, fittingly the gerund form of the verb gerere, to do. But eighteenth-century grammarians who tried to analyse English grammar on Latin models were baffled by this dual nature of the English verbal noun and the way it was commonly preceded by a noun or preposition in the possessive.

To made matters more awkward, many writers used possessive and non-possessive forms, sometimes even in the same text. In a letter in 1867, Lewis Carroll wrote “in hopes of his being able to join us” (the verbal noun being preceded by his, a possessive pronoun) and also “I suppose the music prevented any of it being heard” (being again, but this time with it, a non-possessive pronoun).

There was a notable debate about this in 1926-27 between W H Fowler, who had just published his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and the Danish etymologist and grammarian Otto Jespersen. Fowler argued that the possessive pronoun should be used in every situation but Jesperson refuted him with copious counter-examples, commenting that Fowler was an “instinctive grammatical moraliser”. Grammarians have since then exhaustively researched the verbal noun and have come to an understanding of it that unfortunately hasn’t universally reached student textbooks.

What has become clear is that the distinction between an -ing form as a verb and as a verbal noun is rather artificial and that there’s no easy test for which construction is the right one. Good writers follow unconscious rules in deciding whether to use the possessive before a verbal noun, rules they’ve developed from their experience of using the language.

Current style books (such as Robert Burchfield’s third edition of Fowler) attempt to codify practice by providing a detailed list of these rules. One is to use the possessive with proper and personal nouns and with personal pronouns but not with impersonal ones. In your case that would lead to the correct version being “their being mentioned” and explains why Lewis Carroll used both forms, his first being personal and the second impersonal. Another rule often put forward is that personal nouns aren’t put into the possessive if they’re plural (“Girls chasing boys is nothing new” versus “Annie’s chasing boys is nothing new”, though the only way that you can tell in the first example that girls isn’t in the possessive is that there’s no apostrophe after the s).

However, the rules are much less well observed now than they were a few decades ago, so that a sentence like “I have unhappy memories of him screaming at me” doesn’t strike most of us as wrong in the way that it would have done for Fowler. This is part of a move towards informal modes of expression in which possessives are less common.

As an illustration, the late William Safire wrote about verbal nouns in his On Language column in the New York Times in February 1994. He gave the examples “It’s a matter of women being exploited by men for centuries”, “the cliché about love being blind” and “Liberals did not appreciate the President lecturing them”. He asserted that they were all incorrect. I’d argue the opposite for the first two, as would Dr Burchfield, on the basis that the first contains a plural noun (women) and the other an impersonal one (love). The third should be possessive by the rules but both forms feel right to me, perhaps because president is an insufficiently personal noun.

Many readers have told me that for them there is another aspect to the decision whether to employ a possessive form, that the choice may change the sense slightly. They used one of my examples to illustrate their point. “I have unhappy memories of him screaming at me” emphasises him and what he is doing, screaming. The form with his emphasises that the memory is of screaming, his screaming. A few works on style and grammar discuss this distinction in meaning, among them Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage and Strunk & White. The latter uses the pair “Do you mind me asking a question” and “Do you mind my asking a question”, commenting:

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.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E B White, Fourth Edition, 2000.

However, it’s a subtle distinction that will be lost on many people and few cases are as easily amenable to analysis.

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Page created 08 Jun 2013