Please help me solve this.

Why would him saying, "She is ugly," offend John?


Why would he saying, "She is ugly," offend John?

  • Why would his saying or him saying, but not he saying (except if you don't care about grammar.) – Lambie Jun 22 '18 at 15:17
  • Subjects of gerund-participial clauses are either accusative or genitive, i.e. "him" or "his". – BillJ Jun 22 '18 at 15:52

Surprisingly, the correct construction is neither of the options you suggest. Because "saying" is a noun, the action is possessed by someone; therefore, you should use "his."

Why would his saying "She is ugly" offend John?

Edit by Michael since I don’t yet have enough reputation to post a comment:

Let’s try again by substituting a proper noun in the sentence and see what that give us:

Why would Charlie saying “She is ugly” offend John?

Why would Charlie’s saying “She is ugly” offend John?

“Saying” is a participial form of the verb “say”; hence, it is a gerund in noun form, i.e. an action; therefore: Why would Charlie’s [action] offend John?

  • 2
    Thank you so much. That makes sense. My 16-year-old daughter and I often correct each other's grammar. She and I had a very serious debate on this one. I thought it would be "he," but I stand corrected. Best regards, Trish – Trish Elking Jun 22 '18 at 15:23
  • "Him saying she was ugly offended John." would be acceptable in speech. [I thought] him saying that was offensive. – Lambie Jun 22 '18 at 15:38
  • No, Michael, "saying" is a verb here, not a noun. The reported speech is syntactically a complement of "saying". Nouns don't take reported speech as complement. – BillJ Jun 22 '18 at 16:41
  • 1
    @billj Really. I have a plaque on my wall at home. On that plaque is a saying of mine. (It's something I say often.) That saying reads "She is ugly." John came to my house one day and saw my saying. Why would my saying "She is ugly" offend John? But there is a distinction between the question and this answer. The question uses speech tags. This answer does not. One is a verb, the other is a noun. It depends on if the original poster was actually talking about a verb or was talking about a noun and used speech tags anyway. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jun 22 '18 at 18:55
  • 1
    @JasonBassford I agree with your point. "Saying" could be a noun as in "adage," rather than a participle functioning as a gerund. In the original sentence there was a comma after "saying," which would indicate reported speech. In Michael's sentence the quote marks could simply be emphasis, as quote marks enclose the title of a poem or song. In either case "his" is correct. – Zan700 Jun 22 '18 at 22:00

Brilliant question. In ambiguous sentences like this, go with the most natural flow and your first example is the most natural one. Let's break down the sentence and find which is the subject. Which is the subject here? "She is ugly" is not the subject here. ["She is ugly" said by him] in other words, [Him saying "she is ugly"] is the subject here. If you want to rewrite this for clarity, "His comment about how ugly she looked offended him" would be the correct form.

  • I'd say the subject of the sentence is "Why would him saying, 'She is ugly'. – BillJ Jun 22 '18 at 16:51
  • A wh-question cannot be considered part of the subject. The sentence would still be meaningful without it, so it it is not part of the subject. Some reference here: dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/… – user7498612 Jun 22 '18 at 17:01
  • In that case what function in the sentence does ""why would" have? – BillJ Jun 22 '18 at 17:05
  • "Why would" modifies the statement into a question – user7498612 Jun 22 '18 at 17:08
  • I would say, it is more of a rule that why, what, are where are not considered part of the subject. A subject should answer a question like, who, what or which. A question couldn't be an answer to that question. – user7498612 Jun 22 '18 at 17:41

Let me elaborate on a comment I made that was related to Michael's answer but not understood.

Although the commas used in the punctuation of your example sentences indicate actual speech (they are used along with verbal speech tags), another interpretation is that saying can be taken as a noun:

something said; especially : ADAGE

For the sake of my answer, I'm going to use the word motto instead.

The correct way of constructing a sentence of this type is:

Why would his motto "She is ugly" offend John?

Neither of your other constructions would be grammatical:

Why would him motto "She is ugly" offend John?
Why would he motto "She is ugly" offend John?

If you are using saying as a verb, an instance of uttered speech, then look to the other answers.

But if you are actually talking about a phrase, motto, adage, or saying when used as a conceptual noun, then this answer should provide the pronoun.

To give a specific example (emphasis mine):

Leonardo da Vinci is supposed to supposed to have said: "Unhappy the master who is not surpassed by his disciples," and I find his saying applies to academic research as well—one is always hoping that what one did is going to be improved upon by someone else.

Or (emphasis mine):

This remark of his—that in applying the same word to several instances we mark a family resemblance and not the possession of something in common—was connected with a point which on on occasion at the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club he expressed in the words, "We have the idea that the meaning of a word is an object." This is connected with his saying "Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use", recommended at the Moral Sciences Club as a supplement to "The meaning of a statement is the method of its verification".

  • 1
    Who would ever say that was a motto? It's about speech. – Lambie Jun 23 '18 at 19:38
  • @Lambie The word motto is just one synonym which I used to illustrate the point about the particular sense of the word. I have updated my answer with some specific examples where saying is a (possessed) noun and where neither him nor he would apply. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jun 23 '18 at 20:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.