"That was it," he told me. "Laughing at me behind their faces, about a woman. Me knowing that he was up there, and them knowing I knew that if I busted in and dragged him out and bashed his head off, I'd not only be cashiered, I'd be clinked for life for having infringed the articles of alliance by invading foreign property without warrant or something."

What is the subject of the sentence starting "Me knowing"? Is this grammatically correct? If it is, why?

It is from "All the Dead Pilots" by William Faulkner.

  • The absolute participle construction "Me knowing + that-clause" has the meaning "I knew + that-clause". – rogermue Feb 19 '16 at 5:08
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    @rogermue That was my first impression, which would be apt for "Me knowing the facts, I would have been cashiered." But the cashiered part is the apodosis to the protasis "if I busted in ....", which is too grammatically related for a simple absolute. And in any case, it's not the first person "knowing I knew"; it's the third. – deadrat Feb 19 '16 at 5:15
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    *learn_92 There is no subject: see my answer for a reason. – BillJ Feb 19 '16 at 13:24
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    @EdwinAshworth - Yes, there are several ways to explain those participle constructions. – rogermue Feb 20 '16 at 15:31
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    @Cerberus The them knowing clause is a subordinate one, it's the second of two coordinate non-finite clauses. There is no grammatical sentence because there is no main clause The clause I'd not only be cashiered, I'd be clinked for life for having infringed the articles of alliance by invading foreign property without warrant or something is merely the apodosis of the conditional clause, which crucially is non-finite so it can't be a main clause. I had to read it several times before the 'penny dropped'. – BillJ Feb 20 '16 at 17:37

The 'sentence' you asked about has no overall subject. It’s an example of artistic license where the rules of grammar get broken, not due to grammatical incompetence, but for some literary reason, typically resulting in fragments of a sentence being used, as your quote demonstrates.

The result here is that the sequence you asked about is not actually a full sentence, but a coordination of two non-finite clauses:

  1. Me knowing that he was up there.
  2. Them knowing I knew that if I busted in and dragged him out and bashed his head off, I'd not only be cashiered, I'd be clinked for life for having infringed the articles of alliance by invading foreign property without warrant or something.

Because there is no main clause, there is no overall grammatical subject.

  • @Cerberus Because I misread it initially. "I" is subject of the apodosis, i.e. the second subordinate clause. There is no main clause for the subordinate clauses to latch onto, and hence no overall grammatical subject. – BillJ Feb 20 '16 at 17:23
  • Oh, wait, you're right! I mistakenly went by the punctuation (which I would consider incorrect) and misread it. There is no main clause. I don't know why I didn't get it when I first read your answer. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 20 '16 at 17:37
  • @Cerberus Crucially, the protasis is non-finite, so it can't be a main clause, – BillJ Feb 20 '16 at 17:42
  • By protasis you mean the whole sentence? Because, formally, I only see one protasis, the if clause. Or did you mean that the apodosis is dependent? I think that's what you mean, as in your other comment. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 20 '16 at 17:44
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    @Rathony He makes some good points, but I concentrated on the fact that there was no main clause, though at first glance the clause I'd be clinked for life ... looks like one, whereas in fact it's only the apodosis for a non-finite protasis. I think between us, we came to the right conclusion. Tricky one, though. – BillJ Feb 20 '16 at 18:22

Note that I've expanded the quote to include some more context to make it clear that Faulkner is quoting someone relating an incident. Faulkner is reproducing the patterns of somewhat-convoluted speech. The main clause of the direct speech is

That was it

which is followed by two fragments punctuated like sentences that form an appositive to "it," that is naming the situation that "it" refers to. The two fragments are

[Their] Laughing at me


Me knowing ..., and them knowing ....

The antecedent to the understood [Their] and the explicitly-stated them is a roomful of French soldiers mentioned previously. The object of what they know is the clause

that if I busted ... dragged ... and bashed, [then] I would not only be cashiered ... [but also] clinked

which I've simplified by ellipsis. It takes Faulkner four prepositional phrases to describe what would get the speaker "clinked for life" (i.e., imprisoned for life).

Is it grammatical? Not strictly, but that often happens with the spoken word, which is what Faulkner has incorporated into his story. And it doesn't matter much if you've won a Nobel Prize for literature.

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    Great. Another driveby downvoter, a curse upon this site. Ya got a problem with the answer but don't have the common courtesy to say what it is? Fine. But try to remember that you also mislead the people looking for answers. – deadrat Feb 20 '16 at 6:40
  • Hi, Deadrat. I fixed one typo. I don't understand why your post received a downvote, but... – user140086 Feb 20 '16 at 8:30
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    @Rathony Thanks for the fix. I hate DBDVs (and not just when I'm the target). They leave the impression that correct answers are wrong, and they leave wrong answers uncorrected. – deadrat Feb 20 '16 at 9:10
  • I DB-DV very rarely (in fact, I've UV'd here), but understand why people do it: the unwarranted flak. Which can lead to a futile exercise in justifying one's stance. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 20 '16 at 15:22
  • I initially misread the sentence. You and Bill are right. The quickest way to convince readers might be to immediately mention that, "contrary to what one would expect, I'd not only be cashiered... is not the main clause of the sentence, but it is dependent on I knew that...". Because the punctuation of the sentence is i.m.o. incorrect, it is easy to misinterpret the construction of the sentence for a casual reader (which you might also want to mention). – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 20 '16 at 17:54

If you see "me knowing" and "them knowing" as a with-construction (with me knowing, with them knowing") you can very well see "me" and "them" as logical subjects. In with-constructions "with" can be dropped.

  • Logical subject of what? The sentence has no main clause, just two subordinate clauses functioning as adjuncts. – BillJ Feb 20 '16 at 17:20
  • I can't work with all the children crying. If you change the with-construction you get a clause as "when all the children cry/are crying. "The children" becomes the subject, and the participle becomes the verb of the clause. – rogermue Feb 20 '16 at 17:34

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