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For sometime, all that could be heard in the dim subway with its melancholy ambiance, was the sound of Joe and I breathing.

How to analyse the word "breathing" used in the sentence above? Are they trying to say "I and Joe who was breathing" or "the breathing of I and Joe"?

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I would hazard to guess that it refers to the collective breathing of both Joe and I –  SW4 Jul 31 at 15:14
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Breathing is the gerund (i.e, the verb, the predicate) of the gerund clause Joe and me breathing. Joe and me is the subject of the clause. Joe and I breathing, by the way, is incorrect here; the subject of a gerund clause must be either objective -- Joe and me breathing -= or possessive -= Joe's and my breathing). The gerund clause Joe and me breathing, in turn, is the object of the preposition of, and the prepositional phrase of Joe and me breathing modifies the noun phrase the sound, and describes that sound. –  John Lawler Jul 31 at 15:48
    
Oh, and "the breathing of I and Joe" is also ungrammatical; objects of prepositions have to be objective. Also, this breathing isn't a gerund; since it has an article, it's a noun, not a verb. –  John Lawler Jul 31 at 15:52
    
I wonder if this belongs on English Language Learners. This is not an obscure phrasing, so it seems like the OP is just learning English. –  Barmar Aug 2 at 6:50

2 Answers 2

up vote 0 down vote accepted

Joe and the narrator are in a subway. Joe and the narrator are breathing. The subway is so quiet that the only thing that can be heard is the sound of that breathing.

I suppose you could grammatically interpret this as meaning Joe and the narrator are breathing and making some noise that can be heard in the subway, but the context makes it obvious that this isn't the correct interpretation.

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You wouldn't ever say

For sometime, all that could be heard in the dim subway with its melancholy ambiance, was the sound of Joe.

Contextually that means that Joe and the narrator are both breathing, and that's the sound (and the only sound) being heard.

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