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If you could tell her, that would save me phoning her.

In the sentence above, what is the role of the gerund phoning?

Does it function as a part of the objective phrase (me phoning her)?

Or is it an objective complement (complementing the object me)?

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  • I’m unsure whether to answer. For now a comment. I think the so-called ‘gerund’ structure is a mess. As soon as you try to analyse any particular use you find some problem. ‘-ing’ endings have proved enormously useful portmanteau words offering short cuts to a great variety of structures, few of which could be handled in this way by other languages, especially Latin from which the ‘gerund’ is derived without assuming some sort of periphrasis. In your case, I think the assumption of an ellipsis might work: “save me <the trouble of> ..etc.”. It could be variously unpacked.
    – Tuffy
    Feb 7, 2020 at 9:47

2 Answers 2

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Gerunds have an ambiguous part of speech. Within their own local phrase they are verbs, but outside that phrase they behave as nouns.

In your example, "phoning" is head of the noun phrase "phoning her", which in turn is object of the understood preposition "from". Yet within the phrase "phoning her", "phoning" is a verb with the direct object "her". (Nouns don't allow direct objects.)

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Your main verb in the second half of the conditional is would save. That verb is transitive here, but its direct object is not me! Rather me is the indirect object, and its direct object is the entire nonfinite verb phrase phoning her, where her is in turn the direct object of the verb phoning.

In other words, the apodosis (the “then” part, a finite clause) of your conditional works out like this:

  • SUBJECT: that
  • TRANSITIVE VERB: would save
  • INDIRECT OBJECT: me
  • DIRECT OBJECT: phoning her
    • TRANSITIVE VERB: phoning
    • DIRECT OBJECT: her

This is the sense of save given by the OED’s sense 18 a:

  1. a. transitive.

    To avoid spending or consuming (money, goods, etc.); to make a saving of (a given amount), esp. on a purchase.

    Also with indirect object (formerly also with †to): to enable a person to avoid spending or consuming (money, goods, etc.).

They provide an old citation from 1539 (in Late Middle English transitioning to Early Modern English) for the obsolete use with to they mention:

  • 1539 William Arthur Jobson Archbold The Somerset Religious Houses (1892) 73
    Ther will be a great soome of money that shalbe salved to the kinges highnes therbye.

Nowadays we would not say that a great sum of money shall be saved to his highness. Instead, under dative alternation we would say that something or other would save the king a great deal of money.

So your me is the person benefiting from the action of saving, or at least of avoiding spending. It allows them to avoid spending or using something, just as it does when you ask somebody to please save you a piece of pie for later.

Again, phoning is the head of the nonfinite verb clause phoning her, so that the grammatical role that phoning is fulfilling here. It’s that clause’s verb.

But the entire clause phoning her is the direct object of save, and me is that verb’s indirect object.

Saving me some pie and saving me phoning her are the same structure. They each have a noun phrase as their direct object.

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  • Sixty years ago, when I was at school, if I had written “that would save me phoning her”, my teacher would have crossed out ‘me’ and written ‘my’. So the idea was that ‘phoning’ was a gerund, so a noun, expressing an action belonging to me - so ‘my’. Over the years, teachers gave up correcting ‘me’ or had not been given this arbitrary rule. Nobody changed the rule, or thought about its grammar. Do you think the proliferation of grammatical terminology really helps our understanding of how language works?
    – Tuffy
    Feb 7, 2020 at 14:14
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    The authors of CGEL refer to this increasing use of the accusative instead of genitive form in -ing clauses as a tendency towards regularization of the clausal pattern (or something to that effect). For example, "him" as the perceived and formal subject of the -ing clause "I didn't like him phoning her" can't be confused with a determiner in an NP.
    – user97589
    Feb 7, 2020 at 20:06

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