On free usage of gerunds, I’m in with the -ing crowd
Here’s a sentence from a recent column by Daniel Finkelstein: “In thousands of hours of tapes, including hours of them talking after JFK’s assassination, there wasn’t the smallest hint of them being involved or knowing who was.”
A Times reader wrote to Daniel to take issue with the grammar of this sentence and asked me to look at it. I replied that there was nothing wrong with Daniel’s grammar. Our reader sportingly accepted my case and asked me to write a column about it.
It may be that, having read Daniel’s sentence, you’re unable to work out the grammatical issue raised by our correspondent. In that case, don’t for a moment fear that your grasp of grammar is deficient. On the contrary, as a fluent speaker of the language, you will immediately sense that Daniel’s wording conforms to the grammar of standard English. And so it does; yet, surprisingly, some style gurus disagree. Their objection concerns the words ending in -ing. They would maintain that Daniel ought to have written “there wasn’t the smallest hint of their [not them] being involved or knowing who was”.
The critics have included HW Fowler (in his book The King’s English, co-authored with his brother FG Fowler). Fowler’s case is also stated by Simon Heffer in his book Simply English: An A to Z of Avoidable Errors: “Certain participles can also serve as nouns. These are known as gerunds . . . Once you have decided to deploy a gerund you need also the possessive pronoun, and the possessive of any noun. One would say ‘I deplored his having been left out’ or ‘she remembered John’s coming last Christmas’.”
All this is in error. The Fowlers’ book dates from 1906, and it was wrong even then. How can I say this with confidence? The same way I come to any view on language and usage, namely by looking at the evidence. Fowler himself had an exchange on this issue with Otto Jespersen of the University of Copenhagen, a great scholar of English grammar. My own treatment of the question relies on The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002) by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, who are scholars in the same evidence-based tradition as Jespersen.
The traditional distinction in English grammar between present participles and gerunds is a myth. Latin distinguishes between present participles and gerunds; English doesn’t. Huddleston and Pullum would say that, in Daniel’s sentence, the words talking, being and knowing all fall into the same grammatical category, which they call “gerund-participle”. If you’ve ever worried about what a gerund is in English, you can stop now. You can also stop worrying about whether to use the genitive or plain case for the subject in a gerund-participial complement. Daniel used plain case (them) throughout rather than genitive (their), and I agree with his decision. I’d have done the same.
Take first, “including hours of them talking”. Daniel has rightly chosen plain-case them because the noun phrase hours of them talking is the object of the preposition. Second, consider, “there wasn’t the smallest hint of them being involved or knowing who was”. Here, the noun phrase is the subject of the gerund-participial clause. Genitive-case their would be legitimate but not mandatory. As Jespersen demonstrated to Fowler, plain case has a longer history in English than genitive case in this type of construction. Even the most determined of sticklers would use plain case also with a gerund- participial complement where the subject doesn’t come immediately before the verb. They’d have to say, for example, “I object to him, with no evidence, traducing my good name.”
In summary, forget the supposed distinction between present participles and gerunds: it doesn’t exist in English. Forget too the supposed rule about marking a subject for genitive case in a construction like “she remembered John’s coming for Christmas”. It’s not a real rule.