Which one of the following is correct?

  1. Can you imagine his forgetting his own birthday?
  2. Can you imagine him forgetting his own birthday?

The question was asked in SNAP 2009 and I can't understand why they said that the only right answer is option 1.

I hear people saying 2 all the time, and I read it that way often enough, so what’s supposed to be wrong with option 2?

Or is the test itself wrong?


Traditional grammar insisted that since forgetting in your example was a gerund, i.e. a present participle used as a noun, then it could only be specified by a noun/pronoun in the possessive case. Further, it was assumed that a gerund, unlike participles, could not take subjects.

If you apply this rule, which the test assumes you have learned, then you will choose his over him. Many writing guides, even as YouTube videos, continue to insist on this rule.

While this construction is still quite frequent in more formal written language, it is quite rare in unrehearsed spoken English except among older speakers who have incorporated the rule into their own idiolect. The trend since the 1950s, however, selectively aligns standards for writing with those for educated speech, so that today, many writers would consider using the possessive a relict of the 19th century.

Insisting on the possessive in your example, unless the makers of the test are close to retirement age, is simply pedantic. A simple remark about someone forgetting his own birthday is hardly in a formal register, so the objective case would be the more idiomatic choice.

  • That Youtube video you linked considers "I don't like Mary's cooking" correct and "I don't like Mary cooking" a mistake. The video has 1,000 upvotes and 17 downvotes. It's a teaching video, but even educated native speakers are often sheeple who too sparingly question authority. This rule entails you must say "I don't like his teaching history" instead of "I don't like him teaching history." Also, consider the differences between "I don't like him/his" - "painting"/"drawing"/"racing"/"driving"/"acting". If we do use the accusative "him", then what comes after it? Is it adverbial? – Zebrafish Sep 18 '18 at 9:53
  • @Zebrafish: It's still a noun phrase: I don't like Mary cooking in my kitchen. She gets flour all over everything. Or how you'd title a photo: Mary cooking blacked-eyed peas for New Years, where it wouldn't traditionally be considered a gerund. I don't like Mary's cooking because she puts too much salt in everything. Deverbal here. – KarlG Sep 19 '18 at 2:53
  • So in "I don't like Mary cooking in my kitchen" "Mary cooking in my kitchen" is a noun phrase, and the object of "I don't like"? How about if we use "him" instead of Mary? "I don't like him cooking in my kitchen", then "him cooking in my kitchen" is also a noun phrase? There's a problem I see, if "cooking in my kitchen" is a verb phrase then "him" should be the subject of the verb phrase (because he is doing the cooking), and we're using an object pronoun for the subject (him). Does this make sense? – Zebrafish Sep 19 '18 at 4:52
  • @Zebrafish: Subjects of participles and infinitives are always in the objective case. Traditional grammar simply didn't allow gerunds to have subjects. His wife wants him to stop by the store on his way home. His father doesn't want him swimming in the creek. – KarlG Sep 19 '18 at 14:28

That's a very good question.

In fact, even though it is technically correct,

Can you imagine his forgetting his own birthday?

sounds kind of silly, while

Can you imagine him forgetting his own birthday?

is absolutely grammatically correct.

The confusion (in the minds of those who compose such tests) stems, one would imagine, from the nominative vs dative-accusative concept.

Staunch proponents of perfect grammar have been scaring the less-grammatically-fortunate for decades into substituting "I" for "me" regardless of the case. Thanks to their efforts we now have such pearls as

It didn't matter to her and I.

Which is inconsistent, to say the least, since any case other than nominative that requires the speaker/writer to use the non-nominative form of personal pronouns ("her," "him," "them") would naturally and logically require using "me" rather than "I."

But: folks of humble origins and less-than-thorough education are now afraid to use "me," as well as "him" lest they be deemed "uncultured."

That said,

I'm tired of his criticizing everything!

though technically correct, sounds ... uh ... stupid ... or awkward, if you will, and

I'm tired of his criticism

is normally substituted, or, more frequently,

I'm tired of him criticizing everything

which flows a lot better, overtly colloquial though it may be.

The latter is what the authors of the test seemed to have had in mind when they urged the testees to avoid using "him" at all costs.

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