Friday, December 24, 2004

On the end of the possessing of gerunds

My managing editor, to whom I without question bow the knee, asked me to stop using the possessive with the gerund. "We don't do that here," she said. She meant in Australia.

I am sure that the tendency in Australia is to use an objective with the gerund, and, as a descriptivist and rather a permissive editor, I would not correct it for my own sake. However, as I pointed out to her, the company's style guide asks for the "correct" usage: use the possessive.

In my own writing, I tend to follow the prescription of Fowler (as I do in most things) and write "I dislike your saying that" and not "I dislike you saying that". (Apart from any other consideration, I take it to be a sign of my command of English, which I desire to display in my writing because I am an elitist and wish to be seen as part of the elite. Is it peculiar that a person who tends to be an egalitarian in all things should believe that there should be a privileged means of communication? Well, not really. I have the perfectly natural human desire to be "good at something". If there is no way to be good at writing, I cannot be it, and for me that is an intolerable state of affairs.) I think his analysis was rather disingenuous though, because there is no case whatsoever for considering "you saying" as a fusion of an object "you" and a participle "saying" that. (Mind you, his discussion of "the infantry being taught" is entirely masterful in showing that "being" cannot be a participle. That is how a real thinker works: finding the generalisation that makes your thought correct.)

I was thinking about gerunds, when a tangent struck me. We are told in school that "noun+POSS noun" is the equivalent of "noun of noun", although that's not to say that the latter is not often clumsy. So "the dog's bone" can be rendered "the bone of the dog". Erm. Maybe not. How about "the year's end" and "the end of the year"? Much better. So how come it works better in some cases than others? Well, of course, we were taught wrongly. They do not mean the same thing at all, except for in a few cases. "The end of the line" is not at all the same thing as "the line's end". "You'll be the death of me" is not "You'll be my death". (Why not? It hurts my head to try to draw the deep structure of the two sentences, let alone conjure up the terminology. The case is the same for "let that be the end of it" and "let that be it's end". In the former case there is no possessive; "of" is a simple preposition, which is used similarly to "to".)

How about "the leg of the chair"? Isn't "chair leg" more idiomatic than "chair's leg? Hmmm.

Anyway, I was thinking that gerunds can never be written as "noun of noun". You cannot recast "I don't like your saying that" as "I don't like the saying of that of you".

Is that interesting? Or obvious? Does it help resolve the problem of gerunds ("gerunds' problem" is of course different -- why? Because "of" in this instance means "composed of" -- compare "leg of mutton" or "cup of tea"). Yes, yes and no, I think, are the answers.

What is, I think, the key is "chair leg", "lamp post", "dog house" (I leave them separated for clarity's sake) and the recent usage "girls school", which is much more common here than it is in the UK. In each case the first noun ought properly to possess the second. The leg is the leg of the chair, the post the post of the lamp and the house the house of the dog. You can argue that the "chair leg" is a leg of the type that appears on a chair, so that there is no notion of possession but rather one of description, but I am not at all convinced that we conceptualise either of first two of these things separately from the larger entities (a chair leg is not like other legs but is always part of a chair (attached or not)), while the latter is less clearcut but I think similar.

In any case, English clearly allows nouns to be used as adjectives in this way. I find "girls school" instructive. Is it the school of the girls? No. It's a school for girls, yes. A school of the type that girls attend. But the notion of possession is not truly present. What we call the "possessive" in English does not, of course, strictly imply possession as such. You could describe it, at a stretch, as a genitive. And we allow the possessive to be used in exactly this way in "men's toilet" ("men toilet" is impossible -- but I note that "bikes' shed" is impossible too; curious, huh?). Now, we know that speakers of languages look for rules to structure the utterances they hear. We all have a set of rules wired into our noggins to help us make sense of English (even if we cannot articulate them). These rules are flexible and can be applied more or less widely as time passes. I think that the same rule that creates "chair leg" has created "me saying", in other words, a noun has been adjectivised because it is not recognised as possessing the second noun. Adjectives cannot have case in English, of course, so it is impossible to write "my saying" if you have analysed the gerund as being described by an adjective. Fowler's description of this as a "fused participle" is defeated, because, I claim, the speaker is fully aware that the second noun is a noun and doesn't take it to be a participle at all. Neither is "me" an objective, because, as I say, adjectives do not decline in English.

Two objections can be raised. First, "me" is not used as an adjective in other constructions in English. To which I say, no, but there is no call for it. Where there is a notion of actual possession that is strong, "my" is used (it is the weakness, or abstraction, of "possessing" a verbal noun or an action that makes the adjectivisation of "me" possible). In a similar way, it is natural to say "chair's leg" in constructions such as "I hit him with the chair." "Did you kill him?" "No, I hit him with the chair's leg, not its back.", where the idea of possession is much stronger. Second, there is no reason to choose "me" as the adjectival form. Why not go for "I"? Well, having said that Fowler was wrong in his analysis, I now say that he was right. Although I don't believe speakers analyse "me" as an objective, they do analyse the whole construction "me saying" as being an object (of course, for "you", "it" and any common noun the objective and subjective are identical, so the issue does not arise, and I would have thought that the construction began to be used with complex or long subjects, or even with "this being" or "it VERBing", which is very awkward, and was then generalised to pronouns).

It's a sure thing that gerunds will no longer be possessed a few decades from now (although I do note that constructions such as "On my leaving him, he said..." or "My thinking that changes nothing..." and similar are going to be stubborn.) Pedants and prescriptivists (the scourge of a living, organic language, as they are of anything that can grow and thrive) will of course fight a rearguard action, insisting that it is not "logical", that it breaks some rule or other (entirely disregarding that the rules are something reinterpreted by young children in each generation), but they will not come out and say what really irks them, which is that change is frightening and we all would like from time to time to hold back one tide or another lest we (or what we hope we consist in at least) drown.


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