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1) This reminds me of climbing Ben Nevis years ago.

2) I told you about losing my credit card, didn't I?

I'm quite sure that the person who climbed Ben Nevis is "I" not "This" in 1). But, I'm not so sure that the person who lost "my credit card" is "I" not "you" in 2).

My question is when the object of a verb is the subject of the gerund in structure "subject + verb + object + preposition + gerund"?

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    Note that, although "I" is the more likely subject of "losing" in your second example, changing "told" to "warned" would make "you" the more likely subject of "losing". (And changing "told ... about" to "warned ... against" would make "you" even more certainly the subject of "losing".) May 29, 2018 at 3:16

3 Answers 3

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Only finite verbs have true 'subjects'. What you mean is the primary argument of a gerund, that which would be the subject if the gerund were a finite verb.

This argument is often not expressed with gerunds. But the way to do it is by using e.g. a possessive:

  1. This reminds me of my climbing Ben Nevis years ago.
  2. I told you about Alexander's losing my credit card, didn't I? I was so angry at him!

Instead of a possessive, some use the object case (me; Alexander) here, which is less traditional but also common.

Whenever the primary argument of the gerund is not expressed, this implicit argument can be anything—something expressed elsewhere in the sentence, or something not expressed at all, e.g. something which is clear from context.

In your examples, there are no explicit primary arguments, so you can fill in whatever makes sense in context. Perhaps my climbing Ben Nevis would be most obvious in the first example. In the second one, my losing my credit card would also seem the most obvious choice, but it could just as well be your losing my credit card. One's choice of interpretation is determined based on context and common sense, not grammar c.q. syntax.

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  • Only finite verbs are required to have their subjects in the sentence; other verbs have subjects that aren't required to be present. A great deal of syntax is about determining those subjects, like the difference between I told Mike to leave and I promised Mike to leave. May 9, 2022 at 1:46
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    @JohnLawler: Those are not morpho-syntactically subjects, though. Similarly, in "the dog was bitten by me", me is not the subject, even though it is that constituent having the thematic role 'normally' occupied by the subject, i.e. in the predicate frame of bite in an active, finite clause. Whenever a verb changes from a finite, active form into something else, the thematic role occupied by the subject often changes. For that reason, it is unwise to refer to the thematic role of the primary argument by 'subject': that is a contingent relation, not an inherent one. May 9, 2022 at 3:30
  • Oh, OK. You restrict the term subject to tensed clauses in English, just as I restrict the term tense to inflectional tenses in English. I get it, and I'll try to remember. I use the term subject to refer to whatever works like a 1 in relational grammar, no matter what type of clause, and no matter whether it's aurally present in the utterance. May 9, 2022 at 15:31
  • @JohnLawler: Yes, I think that is a good comparison. Out of curiosity, what do you call the dog in "the dog was bitten by me"? The primary argument is me, so, if you call that the subject, what term is appropriate for the dog? May 11, 2022 at 20:49
  • I call it the subject. Agent is in optional by-phrase, en chomage, in a passive. Not an argument at all. Likewise, Dative promotes 3 to 2, so dative-moved objects can be passivized -- He was given the tickets by the concierge has only a subject he; the other NPs are chomeurs. May 11, 2022 at 22:53
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I would have to say that this is all about context.


I failed to find references in major dictionaries, so I would have to quote other less recognized sources:

From The "subject" of the gerund | Grammaring - A guide to English grammar:

The doer of the action expressed by the gerund can be[...]unexpressed and understood only from the context

From Gerunds as Subjects | Grammar Quizzes:

Because a gerund clause is reduced (i.e., not marked for tense, person, or number, and the subject omitted) information must be understood from context.

(I am well aware that the second quote is about gerunds acting as subjects, but I think the two situations are similar enough.)


My analysis:

1) This reminds me of climbing Ben Nevis years ago.

"Climbing" is an action which only a human (and some animals) can do, and I would assume "this" is something inanimate, so the subject is clearly "I" instead of "this".

2) I told you about losing my credit card, didn't I?

Here, the subject is "I" because in the gerund there is "my credit card". If I phrased it this way, the subject would be "you":

2*) I told you about breaking your knees, didn't I?

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    You're confusing 'subject' (which is a purely grammatical designation defined by the structure of a given sentence) with 'agent' (the term used for the doer of an action, etc). In 'John hit Jill', 'John' is the subject and John is the agent. Passivising, 'Jill was hit by John.' Now, 'Jill' is the subject but John remains the agent (perpetrator). Dec 28, 2017 at 10:48
  • Actually, even 1) is context dependent; at least, as spoken, it is. Suppose, for example, the person is referring to the film 'Climbing Ben Nevis' shown years ago. As spoken, in the context of coming out of the cinema after a film involving the climbing (say in Snowdonia. True, the inverted commas' will give the game away. But surely the grammar is not altered by the punctuation.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 8, 2022 at 23:42
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From The Website of Prof. Paul Brians (Washington State University):

Verb forms ending in “-ing” can function as nouns and are sometimes preceded by pronouns. Such verb/noun forms are called “gerunds.” You’ll often see sentences like this: “I didn’t appreciate him returning the car with the gas tank empty.” But “returning” is a gerund, so it should be preceded by a possessive pronoun: “I didn’t appreciate his returning the car. . . .”

Other examples of standard usage: “Their coming to my birthday party was a nice surprise.” “I didn’t like his being rude to his teacher.” “They weeded the garden without our having to tell them to.” “Coming,” “being,” and “having” are all gerunds, and require preceding possessive pronouns (“their,” “his,” and “our”). If a person’s name appears just before the gerund, that too needs to be in the possessive form: “We’re excited about Bob’s winning the tournament.”

As per this, if the OP's sentences are rephrased as follows, the ambiguity can be avoided.

1) This reminds me of my climbing Ben Nevis years ago.

2) I told you about my losing the credit card, didn't I?

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    (b) Sadly, incorrect. Here is one previous answer contrasting the ACC-ing and POSS-ing structures; there are other threads discussing the ACC-ing construction on the site. But (a) OP has given acceptable examples, and he's asking about those, not possible ways to clarify. Aug 22, 2019 at 18:53

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