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Gerund preceded by possessive pronoun (e.g. “He resents your being more popular than he is”)

Until a few months ago, I had always thought that sentences like this were correct:

They always hated me being an atheist.

Only later to find out that the correct form is:

They always hated my being an atheist.

I came to understand the reason behind this and started using the proper form, but as I've seen the latest futurama episode, I found out the problem is far from over. The main cast character, Fry, said the following:

Never bet against me being stupid.

And now I'm totally lost. I've tried googling for an answer and all I found (by @Cerberus here or by others here, here, here and here) seems to disprove the fact of "me being" being correct.

So I ask: did the creators of futurama make such a horrible mistake, or does this problem go deeper than meets the eye?

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marked as duplicate by Marthaª, Callithumpian, Robusto, RegDwigнt Jun 25 '11 at 13:34

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

    
Me is quite frequent, and not really incorrect; but the more traditional variant is my. I didn't mean to say that me was incorrect in the answer you linked to. –  Cerberus Jun 25 '11 at 0:31

4 Answers 4

English has a phenomenon whereby so-called "objective" pronouns (just like ordinary noun phrases) are actually used as the subjects of gerundives, whereas the subject forms are unusual in this case. For example:

(a) Him arriving late was inconvenient.

(b) ??He arriving late was inconvenient.

Now, prescriptivists have advocated in such cases using the following formula:

(c) His arriving late was inconvenient.

Usually, the argument used is some combination of (1) according to the author's "logic", the use of "Him" in (a) couldn't be reconciled; (2) the word "arriving" is felt to be 'noun-like', and so using "his" can be logically reconciled. Fowler, for example, writes:

"The gerund is variously describable as an -ing noun, or a verbal noun, or a verb equipped for non-work, or the name of an action. [...] He went is equipped for noun-work by being changed to his going [...].

From this kind of logic follows the usual teaching that (c) is the "correct" version.

Unfortunately, these arguments are spurious. As you've noted, however you want to model it, version (a) is naturally used in English. If you can't account for this in your model of the language, it's your model that is inadequate. The Fowlerian argument appears to centre on the notion that the gerund is so "noun-like" that it must have a possessive. But it's clear that gerunds are actually verb-like, rather than noun-like, enough to use adverbs rather than adjectives:

"Normal" noun: His swift arrival.

Gerund: Him swiftly arriving.

So if a gerund is a noun that can have special properties such as using an adverb, why is that OK as a property of the gerund, but using the "objective" form for the subject isn't?

My recommendation: I would really just say and write the form that feels most natural to you. If you feel that (c) sounds like natural English to you, then great. If (a) feels more natural to you, but you feel compelled to use (c) anyway because of some piece of linguistic etiquette based on spurious argumentation, then by all means use (c), but it's worth recognising that that's what you're doing.

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They are actually both valid.

Never bet against my being stupid.

Here, being is treated as a noun, and the command is to not bet against being. (whose being? mine. being what? stupid.)

Never bet against me being stupid.

Here, being is treated as an adjective, and the command is to not bet against me (while I am being stupid).

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1  
This is a bit simplistic. Gerunds have special properties and are not ordinary nouns; and the 'objective' form is also used as the subject of gerunds even when that gerundive phrase is then itself the subject of the sentence ("Me bing stupid shouldn't alarm you"). I expanded on this in my answer below. –  Neil Coffey Jun 24 '11 at 19:25
    
@NeilCofey: I agree that there isn't much difference in meaning between both variants; but it could be argued that me in me being stupid shouldn't alarm you is the subject and being a participle (not a gerund) modifying it. This is sometimes called dominant usage of the participle, a (trivial) type of metonymy. Cf. absolute constructions, which have participles, not gerunds. –  Cerberus Jun 25 '11 at 0:20

It is not uncommon in today's oblivion of proper English to find all sorts of syntactical and spelling errors in common or frequent use. Your example doesn't feature such a blatantly horrible mistake as many which are common now. So it is possible that the line by Fry was a little slip by the script writer.

Some modern script writers will use less precision in the English of the actors' lines on purpose to make it sound 'natural' (She's waaaaay older than me!) or sometimes even groovy. I'm not sure (not being familiar with it) whether Futurama is of the type of show which will do this, but it also seems possible. Since you are familiar with Futurama, you might be able to tell best whether the 'mistake' was intentional, based on your knowledge of the quality of the show.

That said, "me being" is not even a true error - it is just more grammatically stodgy.

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3  
Fry is supposed to be a bit of an idiot, so it's a safe bet it was intentional. Not that people who use incorrect grammar are necessarily idiots. And not that incorrect grammar necessarily exists. –  Jon Purdy Jun 24 '11 at 19:23
    
Yes, Fry really is supposed to be an idiot, but it should also be noted that the author behind Futurama is the same person who created The Simpsons, which doesn't necessarily mean anything, only that the brains behind the show are very experienced, therefore I doubt it was a slip by a writer, although it really might have been intentional to reflect Fry's idiocy. –  RiMMER Jun 24 '11 at 22:03

On the scope of style guides

Contrary to popular belief, a style guide is not a description of the speech of the average person, nor of the majority; it usually concerns a small group. In fact, it does not even describe the language of a group: instead, it is usually meant as an ideal. This ideal may or may not be close to average language; it depends on the guide. All sorts of rules are set out that the author believes would result in better language if followed to a certain degree. What is better language? That depends on the guide, but it is usually a combination of beauty and clarity. The primary goal of a style guide is prescription, not description. This is an indisputable characteristic of the genre. It should also be noted that most style guides concern themselves only with (semi-)formal writing.

I will admit a single point of inconsistency: sometimes a style guide may appear to make an assertion about actual usage and use that as an argument. This could be held against it as a false factual claim if it isn't true. However, such an assertion should not be taken literally, without interpretation; it should be read loosely. A style guide is not a scientific article.

Its prescriptivist nature notwithstanding, a style guide may present factual claims about usage or linguistic arguments to support a certain rule. But for the most part such claims and arguments merely illustrate the rule; they cannot prove it. It is ultimately the authority of the author that carries his claims or collapses under their weight. If we trust this author's taste, experience, and intuition with regard to a certain rule, we will follow it; if not, we will ignore it. The author is free to discourage a construction that 99 % of the people use if he so chooses.

From this it follows that you shouldn't consult a style guide if you want to test whether a certain construction will be acceptable to the average person, unless the guide is written with that particular purpose in mind. That certainly excludes Fowler's. However, if you like Fowler's style and are persuaded by his experience and intuition, and if you want to appeal to a certain smaller circle of language enthusiasts, his guide can be a very interesting source. I believe a good style guide will earn our respect if it leads by example: it should count for something if the guide is well written. That is probably one of the reasons for Fowler's enduring popularity.

Burchfield on the use of pronouns with gerunds

The eminent scholar Burchfield has edited the third version of Fowler's Modern English Usage. This edition is quite different; it is considered much less prescriptive than the previous one (which was edited by Gowers). He has some sort of personal corpus centred on British and American newspapers and appears to describe in some articles, prescribe in others. He is rather descriptive in his article on the possessive with gerund:

As the 20c. draws to a close the choice of construction is mostly resolved along the following lines:

(i) The possessive with gerund is frequently used when the word before the -ing form is a proper name or personal noun (e.g. Andrew, Reagan, sister, baby): ... wondering if he should be angry ... about May's sleeping with him and then throwing him out, about his grandfather's having left no message or sign for him but a field of junked cars—C. Tilghman, 1991

(ii) When the noun is non-personal, is part of a phrase, or is in the plural the possessive is normally not used: ... Mrs Thatcher herself is not averse to this elegant bone being cast before her long-standing tormentor—Daily Tel., 1987.

(iii) With personal pronouns, where there is a difference of form, usage is evenly divided: (possessive) ... 'Is it all right?' he asked, needing reassurance. 'My coming to your party?'—B. Rubens, 1987. (non-possessive) ... There would be something so despicable about him blustering ahead with a palpably unsound argument—C. Chambers, 1992.

(iv) With indefinite pronouns usage is divided, but the non-possessive form is now dominant: (possessive) ... Mrs Longo has nothing against anyone's being Japanese, of course—New Yorker, 1988. (non-possessive) ... should we not primarily be looking on Aids as a symptom of something having gone fundamentally wrong with our attitudes to sexuality?—Daily Tel., 1987.

Further outlook. The possessive with gerund is on the retreat, but its use with proper names and personal nouns and pronouns persists in good writing. When the personal pronoun stands in the initial position it looks certain that the possessive form will be preferred for a long time to come: e.g. His being so capable was the only pleasant thing about the whole dreadful day—E. Jolley, 1985 (Aust.); 'My being here must embarrass you,' she says—New Yorker, 1986. The substitution of Him and Me would take both sentences into a lower level of formality.

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