This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.
There often seems to be uncertainty over whether the ‘-ing’ form of a verb can be preceded only by a possessive determiner like his (or a noun with a possessive inflection like Rachel’s), or whether it can also be preceded by a personal pronoun like him (or a noun unmarked for possession like Rachel). The two possibilities can be seen in these examples, the first using a possessive determiner, the second a personal pronoun:
(1a) I don’t like his ignoring me.
(1b) I don’t like him ignoring me.
Grammarians have been arguing about the choice between the two for centuries. As ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ (MWDEU) says of the construction itself:
They cannot parse it, they cannot explain it, they cannot decide whether the possessive is correct or not.
Harry Blamires states the case against the ‘-ing’ form being preceded by an accusative personal pronoun in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ thus:
There is logic in disallowing the construction. She disliked me reading detective novels is improper because she did not dislike me at all. She disliked what I was doing. Thus it is that the correct thing to say is She disliked my reading detective novels.
In diametric opposition to Blamires and to some of today’s nay-sayers, it was the use of the possessive determiner that some early commentators were hostile to, but Fowler came down firmly on its side, calling the alternative with the accusative personal pronoun a ‘fused participle’. In his grumpiest tones, he wrote:
It is perhaps beyond hope for a generation that regards upon you giving as normal English to recover its hold upon the truth that grammar matters. Yet every just man who will abstain from the fused participle . . . retards the progress of corruption; and it may therefore be worth while to take up again the statement made above, that the construction is grammatically indefensible.
In a comment, Fowler’s subsequent editor Ernest Gowers supports him in simple cases such as upon your giving, which he regarded as ‘undoubtedly more idiomatic than upon you giving.’ But he concedes that some flexibility is required ‘when a more complicated sentence makes a possessive impossible’. Gowers concludes the article with this quotation from Charles Onions:
If this rule were pressed, we should have to say: His premature death prevented anything’s coming of the scheme, which can hardly be called English.
It may well be the influence of Fowler, unmodified by Gowers, that has led many afterwards to believe that the possessive determiner alone is grammatical before the ‘–ing’ form.
The problem is that the ‘–ing’ form often seems to be looking in two directions. In (1a) ignoring is preceded by the possessive determiner his, making it a noun, but it’s also complemented by the pronoun me, making it a verb. The grammar of sentence (1b) can perhaps be more readily explained, for ignoring is again followed by me, suggesting a verb, and the preceding him, I would argue, makes it consistent with this analysis. If it read simply I don’t like him we would have an uncontroversial sentence. The addition of ignoring me makes no difference to the basic structure: it gives us more information about the aspect of the person addressed that the speaker doesn’t like. It’s rather as if the speaker was saying I don’t like the ‘ignoring me’ him. In other words, ignoring me can be read as being in apposition to him.
The difference between the two constructions can perhaps be better illustrated with these four sentences:
2a. I don’t like Rachel cooking.
2b. I don’t like Rachel’s cooking.
2c. I don’t like Rachel cooking dinner.
2d. I don’t like Rachel’s cooking dinner.
Most of us would understand 2a as meaning that the speaker didn’t like Rachel being in the kitchen, and it’s hard to see how it can be ungrammatical. Sentence 2b, on the other hand, clearly means that what Rachel cooked was not to the speaker’s taste. When the ‘–ing’ form has an object, as in the third and fourth sentences, the unmarked noun Rachel in 2c seems much more likely than the marked form. That’s because the speaker is objecting to the fact that it is Rachel who is cooking dinner, rather than that dinner is being cooked, which is the emphasis in the less likely 2d.
That, it seems to me, is the crucial point. The sentences show, in the words of the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ that:
. . . when the possessive alternative is used, it focuses attention on the action described in the ‘–ing’ clause. In contrast [the non-possessive] form puts more emphasis on the person doing the action.
This is a useful choice, and to deny it, as Harry Blamires did, and as others still do, is to be insensitive to the subtle distinctions of which English is capable.
MWDEU is in no doubt about the matter:
This construction, both with and without the possessive, has been used in writing for about 300 years. Both forms have been called incorrect, but neither is.
In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters considers the additional matter of appropriateness of context:
Yet those differences [in the focus of attention] intersect with matters of style. The choice of the possessive my [in her example] makes the sentence rather formal, while the use of the object pronoun me is acceptable in most everyday kinds of writing.
She concludes, however, by saying:
Insistence on the construction with the possessive alone seems to be yet another linguistic fetish which has no basis in the way English is used.
Having ‘no basis in the way English is used’ seems to be of no concern to those who would limit our use of the language to constructions of their own choosing.