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I was recently reading this very interesting post here:

When is a gerund supposed to be preceded by a possessive adjective/determiner?

In this thread, it is argued persuasively that we could use either his or him interchangeably in front of a gerund. However, this does not seem to me to be true. For instance, consider the following example:

  • His continuous meddling was starting to bother me.

It appears that only a possessive will do here and an accusative is completely ungrammatical (in the true meaning of the word):

  • *Him continuous meddling was starting to bother me.

An accusative also seems to give rather dubious results in the following examples too. Compare:

  • The senate characterized their sinking of the flagship as rash and excessive.

... with the completely ungrammatical:

  • *The senate characterized them sinking of the flagship as rash and excessive.

So, it seems that we cannot just freely exchange the accusative and possessive pronouns that occur before gerunds.

My questions therefore are:

  1. When must a gerund be preceded by a possessive pronoun as opposed to an accusative one?

  2. Are these gerunds, and if not why not?

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    In the first sentence, meddling is a real noun, not a gerund. Nouns can be modified by possessive NPs, but not objective ones. It doesn't matter with a real gerund, like Him/His continually fiddling with the controls. Ditto the second; note that the possessive can be replaced in either of these sentences by a definite article; this is a test for true nouns, since gerunds can't have articles. – John Lawler Jun 17 '15 at 19:38
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    They are laid down by judges, who view themselves as omniscient and omnipotent when it comes to the meaning and use of language. – John Lawler Jun 17 '15 at 19:57
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    It's not English; it's legal boilerplate, manufactured by skilled boilermakers. I have no opinion on it; lawyers can talk any way they want to. – John Lawler Jun 17 '15 at 20:08
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    Possessives can be determiners; that's why we can't say *the his brother. But his need not be a determiner; it could be subject or possessive or part of a construction. – John Lawler Jun 17 '15 at 21:03
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    @Araucaria His is a determiner when it’s a possessive determiner, and a pronoun when it’s a possessive pronoun. ;-)  Try it with any other person and it becomes clear: my/your/her/our/their are determiners and cannot function as subjects; mine/yours/hers/ours/theirs are pronouns and can function as subjects. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 18 '15 at 8:03
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To take the last question first: no, the forms in the examples in the question here are not gerunds. They are verbal nouns.

Morphologically speaking, gerunds and verbal nouns are indistinguishable in English: they both end in -ing and are identical both to each other and to the present participle (which is a different kettle of fish that I’ll leave out of this).

The only way to tell them apart is by their syntactic properties (but not, as rogermue surmises in his answer, their syntactic function): whereas a verbal noun is a true noun and functions as a true noun, a gerund has both noun-like properties and verb-like properties:

  • Verbal nouns can: be modified by any kind of determinative (and possessive determiners1 included) and adjectives, be pluralised, modify other nouns in of-constructions. They cannot: be modified by any kind of pronoun or by adverbs, take subjects or objects
  • Gerunds can: take subjects (NPs, objective pronouns, or possessive determiners) and objects, be modified by adverbs. They cannot: be modified by other determinatives (like articles), be pluralised, modify other nouns in of-constructions

The two types are in complementary distribution, then.

The grammatical examples in this question are all instances of verbal nouns, rather than gerunds: they are preceded by determinatives (and we can switch the possessive ones for definite articles without losing grammaticality) and adjectives; and they modify their ‘object’ by using of-constructions.

The ungrammatical examples, on the other hand, attempt to shoehorn a verbal noun into being a gerund by having a pronoun precede it, though maintaining the modifying adjectives and the of-constructions. Ungrammaticality naturally ensues.

If we convert the ungrammatical examples into actual gerund clauses by also substituting adverbs for adjectives and direct objects for of-constructions, they become completely grammatical:

√ His continuous meddling was starting to bother me. →
× Him continuous meddling was starting to bother me. →
√ Him continuously meddling was starting to bother me.

√ The senate characterized their sinking of the flagship as rash and excessive. →
× The senate characterized them sinking of the flagship as rash and excessive. →
√ The senate characterized them sinking of the flagship as rash and excessive.

Note that, while both options (verbal noun or gerund) are equally grammatical, one is frequently preferable to the other, even in syntactically similar circumstances: the choice depends on a variety of factors, but most basically I would say it is a semantic one. The gerund expresses the simple fact that the verbal action was carried out, whereas the verbal noun tends to express the manner in which it was carried out. So if the manner in which something happens that is important, the verbal noun is preferred; if it’s the simple fact of the action taking place at all that’s relevant, the gerund is preferred; and if either or both is relevant, both work equally well:

Both fine
√ Him continuously meddling [the fact that he meddles continuously] was starting to bother me
√ His continuous meddling [the continuous manner of his meddling] was starting to bother me

√ Him preparing the roast dinner [the fact that he was the one preparing it] was disappointing
√ His preparing of the roast dinner [the way he prepared it] was disappointing

Manner
√ His skilful engraving of the vase [the way he engraved it] was unparallelled.
(×) Him skilfully engraving the vase [the fact that he engraved it] was unparallelled.

Simple fact
√ Him downing that two-litre pitcher of beer [the fact that he was able to do it] in 4.8 seconds was the best thing I’ve ever seen
(×) His downing of that two-litre pitcher of beer [the manner in which he did so] in 4.8 seconds was the best thing I’ve ever seen

 


 

As the examples above show, the answer to the first question is never: a gerund that expresses a subject can always do so through an objective pronoun. It is only when dealing with verbal nouns that objective pronouns are not an option.

On the other hand, it is frequently the case that the subject of a gerund can be expressed by an objective pronoun, but not idiomatically by a possessive determinative. In other words, the exact opposite of what the question here asks. In this case, the difference is, as far as I can tell (I’m sure GaGEL deal with this in more detail, but alas I have no access to it), based on what components the gerund clause contains:

  • Gerunds which are not modified by adverbs can freely licence either possessive determinatives or objective pronouns to represent their semantic subjects
  • Gerunds which are modified by adverbs overwhelmingly prefer objective pronouns to represent their subjects

In other words:

√ I appreciate you taking the time to help me.
√ I appreciate your taking the time to help me.
√ I appreciate you voluntarily taking the time to help me.
(×) I appreciate your voluntarily taking the time to help me.

My gut instinct is to call the last example entirely ungrammatical, but I have a hunch some would consider it acceptable.

 

This actually implies that there are really three levels in the verb↔︎noun hierarchy of non-finite verbish forms:

  1. Verbal nouns are pure nouns. They construct NPs and as such, their subjects must fill the determiner slot in the NP and thus be determinatives.
  2. Unmodified gerunds are on the fence: they can either be verb-like and form non-finite gerund clauses, allowing direct objects and licencing full NPs (including pronouns) as subjects; or they can be noun-like and form NPs, taking determiner subjects, though they retain the verb-like property of allowing direct objects.
  3. Gerunds modified by adverbs are the most verb-like. They form non-finite gerund clauses, freely take direct objects, and require NP subjects.

(1) thus has no verb-like properties at all, only noun-like properties; (2) has the verb-like property of taking direct objects and optionally also NP subjects; and (3) have virtually no noun-like properties, allowing direct objects and requiring NP subjects, like finite verbs.

 


1 Note that ‘possessive determiners’ here refers to any possessive expression that can fill the determiner slot in a NP. That includes the possessive determinatives (my/your/his/her/our/their), but also NPs with possessive clitics (Bill’s, the King of Spain’s, etc.).

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I think it depends on wether the gerund is in subject position or object position.

1 His constant meddling was annoying.

2 I hate his meddling in my affairs.

3 I hate him meddling in my affairs.

In 1 I would prefer "his" and I would consider "him" incorrect. In 2 "his" is normal, in 3 "him" is style of spoken language.

  • Hmm, but how about "I hate him constant meddling in my affairs"? And the second example in my question has an --ing as a direct object, doesn't it? – Araucaria Jun 18 '15 at 7:39
  • This is not the reason: the syntactic function of the word is not relevant, and both can be grammatical in both subject and object functions. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 18 '15 at 8:06
  • I think you mean "Him constant meddling was starting to bother me". I feel not competent as non-native speaker to judge that structure grammatically and stylistically. I think I have to read such a sentence two times to see how it is built. Is is a gerund? Could one use "constantly"? The structue seems somehow ambiguous to me, so that I would avoid it. – rogermue Jun 18 '15 at 8:09
  • I mean that example's bad in both subject and object positions (him constant meddling in my affairs"). – Araucaria Jun 18 '15 at 8:52

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