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I have a rather fussy grammar question, and I'm having a hard time finding out whether there even is a rule that applies here. Even describing the structure correctly is a bit of a challenge.

The sentence in question is this:

Current data collection practices in the country hardly inspire confidence, with personal information regularly being shared among different parties without the knowledge of customers.

This sentence comes from a test of English grammar used in certain countries for English language learners. (For what it's worth, the credited answer, according to the test, is that the sentence contains no error.) I have ended up in a discussion with a grammar teacher over the placement of the word "regularly".

The question is this: is there any standard rule addressing the difference between

...information regularly being shared...

and

...information being regularly shared....

I should clarify exactly what I am asking, and what I am not asking.

My question(s)

  1. Is there any specific rule in a standard English grammar reference (US- and/or UK-based) that addresses this issue? Ideally, a citation to a dusty old grammar reference could be provided. That would somehow be an ideal answer.
  2. How exactly does one analyze this structure in the first place?
  3. (Bonus) Is anyone brave enough to diagram this beast? :D

Regarding question 2, I'm seeing a preposition (with), whose object is everything that comes after it. Stripping off all inessential pieces, I get "information being shared" as the bare-bones object of the preposition. What, precisely, is that construction? It must be a gerund phrase, but what is "shared" doing in there, exactly? Is is a participial adjective, completing the linking gerund "being"? Is there something passive about the construction? A lot is going on here!

Anyway...

Not my question(s)

  • Which version do speakers prefer/which is more natural? I don't mind comments addressing this point, but they will not help with what I'm asking.
  • Any philosophical/sociological points about prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar. That's a different conversation, and I know where I stand on those questions. This is just an instance of two people grammar-geeking out because we can.
  • How you might rephrase the sentence to avoid this matter. That's neat and all, but again, I'm just trying to find out whether any of the standard prescriptive grammar books address this very particular issue, and if so, what do they say.
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    Not much. I'm not really versed in this kind of research, which is why I came here. – G Tony Jacobs Jul 28 at 16:40
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    There may well be fussy pedantic rules on this in some grammar textbook, but those are for children, like Santa Claus. And they are equally incorrect. Adverbs are notoriously free in their position in English, though there are different affordances for different kinds of adverbs -- "Adverb" is something of a wastebasket category. In this case, whether the adverb is on one side or another of a meaningless auxiliary verb (being) is of no consequence. – John Lawler Jul 28 at 17:23
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    Yes, @JohnLawler, you're stating the same views I have. However, strange as it may seem, I am asking precisely about those fussy pedantic rules. I completely agree that it is of no consequence, but I nevertheless want to know what Santa Claus has to say about it. I have my reasons, and I'm sure there is a pedant somewhere who would be happy enough to do their thing, and explicate this. – G Tony Jacobs Jul 28 at 17:41
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    A fussy pedant would insist that the closer the adverb is to the word it modifies, the correcter it is. They would also assume that any adverb would modify a particular word, not a phrase or clause, because they learned the beads-on-a-string (or word-follows-word) theory of grammar, and words are all they can see. They might also say something about "regularly shared" being a fixed phrase, which is possible, and if so argues for keeping them together as a predicate phrase. Finally, there might be words about a supposed distinction in the meaning(s) of be; this part can be ignored profitably. – John Lawler Jul 28 at 19:44
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    @JohnLawler, thank you. That's precisely the kind of answer I was looking for, or at least part of it. I'm trying to get the detailed take of the fussiest of absurd pedants, but they're hard to find in 2019. I'd still like to know whether the object of the preposition is gerund, progressive, passive, some pair of those, or all three, but this is already great. – G Tony Jacobs Jul 28 at 20:46
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I shall start with a brief answer to the numbered questions.

  1. As far as I am aware, there is no such fustian rule in a dusty grammar. But the finer points of the order of adverbs is not an area which i have considered. I can imagine fine differences. Of the alternatives given in the question, I marginally prefer the first, with "regularly being shared". The second, "being regularly shared" might be construed to involve not just that regularly a lot of personal information gets shared, but that lots of personal information gets regularly shared, which is very slightly different. But I would not go to the stake on this. I probably would not have noticed, had the question not been raised. In context, it is abundantly clear what is meant.

  2. The phrase fragment "...with personal information regularly being shared..." is (I think) an absolute phrase, and "being" (or "being shared") is a participle, qualifying the noun information. It is not, in my view, a gerund. I have already explained this in comment and a reply, and shall say more below.

  3. I cannot comment on the diagramming question. I was educated in Britain, and this is a phenomenon of US school education, unknown in the UK. I first encountered it in reading Noam Chomsky's revolutionary book Syntactic Structures, in which he uses the idea of diagramming as a way to present his idea of what he called 'deep structure'. My understanding of grammar came from the study of Latin and ancient Greek.

There is a term, used in two sources I have found: that of the absolute phrase. Examples of this are found, for example, in English Grammar (https://www.englishgrammar.org/absolute-phrase/). It explains:

When a participle and the noun that comes before it together form an independent phrase, the structure is often called an absolute phrase.

I should say that is a fair description of what I understand by the idea. It goes on to gives examples like these:

The weather being fine, we went out for a picnic. The visitors having left, we went to bed.

It is easy to see that the first of of the two, express a causal relationship between the fact that the wether was fine and the fact that we went out for a walk. It could have been expressed as:

Because the weather was fine, we went out for a walk.

The second of the two expresses a temporal relationship between the departure of the visitors and our going out for a walk. We did not go out because they had left. We just did so afterwards.

When the visitors had left, we went out for a walk.

In both sentences, the opening phrases involve participles, not gerunds. And there is a perfectly good reason for saying this. Take these two sentences.

Tired of watching TV, we decided to go out for a walk.

Here, as in the first example, the relationship is obviously causal. But here it is obvious that "tired" is a participle and that it qualifies the subject of "decided". It could not possibly be a gerund.

The second sentence can receive the same treatment.

Bidding farewell to our visitors, we went out for a walk.

This has the same temporal relationship, and it is obvious that "bidding" is a participle and qualifies the first person plural pronoun 'we'. It cannot possibly be a gerund. So why, in the two sentences in question, should it seem to be a gerund rather than a participle? Well, in both these sentences, the '-ing' word in question does not qualify any noun or noun phrase in the sentence! Oh, yes: and there is this wretched little preposition "with". With has to modify some noun in the sentence. But there is none that it can modify... except ** the whole phrase "with personal information being shared...". And that would make "being shared" a gerund, surely. A generation ago I should have been able to say that, if so, "personal information being shared" should be "personal information's** being shared. But the use of the possessive 's with the verbal noun has completed its process of dropping out of use.

The temptation to treat it as a gerund is the greater, because of the difficulty of the grammatically homeless phrase.

But there remains the alternative I mentioned at the outset: The "Absolute Phrase". What does this mean and where does it come from? I have no doubt that it owes its existence to the absolute phrases familiar to the many people who at school studied Latin and the slightly fewer who also studied ancient Greek. Latin uses participles in exactly this way, and it is called the ablative absolute. I am as sure as I can be that this accounts for the choice of the term absolute in this context. In Latin you might get a sentence like this:-

Obsidibus capris, Caesar exercitum in hibernias duxit.
Literally, "Hostages having been taken, Caesar led his troops into winter quarters."

This construction is used to express a temporal or causal connection. Ablative is the case used to express agency, cause or origin, and was explained in the grammar books with the words by, with or from. In ancient Greek, which had no ablative, the corresponding construction employed the genitive, which expressed not only possession, but also agency, origin and cause.

Where does this 'absolute' word come from? It is and always has been the word used for this particular Latin construction: the ablative absolute. Latin was the language of learning and scholarship throughout the middle ages and widely used in the 18th century: both Newton in England and Leibnitz in Germany wrote their seminal works in Latin. Even in the 19th century Latin was taught in private schools and grammar schools, and continued to plague such pupils well into the 1950s and early sixties. The following is a good explanation of it.

The ablatives of a participle and a noun (or pronoun) are used to form a substitute for a subordinate clause defining the circumstances or situation in which the action of the main verb occurs. The ablatives are only loosely connected grammatically to the remainder of the sentence, hence its name absolute (absolūtus = free or unconnected). Its connection with the sentence is, essentially, logical: syntactically, it stands alone.

There are, in fact, familiar phrases that work like this.

Weather permitting, we should make it to top. That being said, I don't approve of what you are doing. Given the presence of rioters in the street outside, they they decided to stay where they were. All things considered, I think we had better leave at once.

But where did the with come from? My answer is speculative. The Latin ablative absolute was the bane of many a reluctant victim of the study of Latin. It was also the bane of teachers of Latin, trying to move their pupils away from the hideous literal translation of "obsidibus captis" as "with hostages having been taken". Well, out of the possible interpretations of the ablative, 'by' and 'from' seem unpromising, so perhaps 'with' will do. But since then the usage of 'with' introducing an absolute phrase has become increasingly common.

  • Suppose he didn't want troubles: he didn't want his information being shared by others without his consent. He didn't want his information to be shared by others without his consent. Now front those nonfinite clauses into subject position. His info being shared by others was the last thing he wanted. For his info to be shared by others was the last thing he wanted. That suggests that these can all be analysed as nonfinite clauses with explicit subjects. Why again does balancing false dichotomies like gerunds vs participles on the head of English's illatinate pin matter here? – tchrist Aug 4 at 23:20
  • @tchrist Well, then you have a so-called gerund. It is “His personal information’s being shared” that is the subject of the verb “was”. But that is not so in the original sentence. – Tuffy Aug 4 at 23:28
  • Why would you use a possessive here? Nobody talks that way. It sounds very unnatural. Let the nonfinite verb take a subject for goodness' sake! – tchrist Aug 5 at 0:47
  • @tchrist As I have said, what used to be in my own life a rigid classroom ‘rule’ has gradually disappeared from use and even from the style guides of journals and government departments. But, of course, that does not mean that the generation that were abandoning this ‘rule’ were replacing it with another. I wonder about the term ‘non-finite’. But there it is. I gather it is to explain how it comes about that “people widely sharing other people’s personal information” is not a sentence but a sentence fragment even though it has SVO. – Tuffy Aug 5 at 7:58
  • Quoth Wikipedia: “A finite verb is a form of a verb that has a subject (expressed or implied) and can function as the root of an independent clause; an independent clause can, in turn, stand alone as a complete sentence. In many languages, finite verbs are the locus of grammatical information of gender, person, number, tense, aspect, mood, and voice. Finite verbs are distinguished from non-finite verbs, such as infinitives, participles, gerunds etc...” Please see. – tchrist Aug 7 at 2:09
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In comment, John Lawler wrote:

There may well be fussy pedantic rules on this in some grammar textbook, but those are for children, like Santa Claus. And they are equally incorrect. Adverbs are notoriously free in their position in English, though there are different affordances for different kinds of adverbs -- "Adverb" is something of a wastebasket category. In this case, whether the adverb is on one side or another of a meaningless auxiliary verb (being) is of no consequence.

And:

A fussy pedant would insist that the closer the adverb is to the word it modifies, the correcter it is. They would also assume that any adverb would modify a particular word, not a phrase or clause, because they learned the beads-on-a-string (or word-follows-word) theory of grammar, and words are all they can see. They might also say something about "regularly shared" being a fixed phrase, which is possible, and if so argues for keeping them together as a predicate phrase. Finally, there might be words about a supposed distinction in the meaning(s) of be; this part can be ignored profitably.

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