Prescriptivists are sometimes like kids. The thing about kids is that they’ll sometimes come up with a really clever argument for why something is the way it is, but they won’t think about its consequences. A kid might, for instance, claim that milk must be good for you because very fit people advertise for it. But then they won’t think of all the other things that are advertised by very fit people but that are unquestionably bad for you (e.g., fast food, pop, beer). Prescriptivists will often do the same thing: they’ll come up with a seemingly reasonable argument to back up the position they hold, but for the argument to be valid, you’d have to ignore some obvious counter-examples.
On that point, let’s look at the issue of gerundive subjects (which sounds much more exotic than it is). Remember that a gerund is a present participle of a verb (the -ing form) that is being treated like a noun:
(1) Swimming is one of my favorite activities
(2) I enjoy eating cakes
The issue of gerundive subjects comes up in a sentence like (3), where the question becomes whether me or my is the better choice:
(3) My roommates are rather concerned about me/my dancing
The representative I’ve chosen for the prescriptivist opinion on this is Patricia O’Conner, from her book Woe is I. (Other prescriptivists, such as James Kilpatrick, agree with her opinion, but she’s the one who’s at least given some justification for her stance.) O’Conner describes gerundive subjects as the “Gordian knot of possessive puzzles”, by which I figured she meant that the solution is to cut the sentences in half with a sword. But no! That’s not at all what she was getting at. O’Conner has a nice neat and tidy solution to this issue — not unlike Alexander the Great’s solution to the original Gordian knot. And, like Alexander’s solution, O’Conner’s solution ignores the essential subtleties of the problem.
O’Conner’s solution is to say that my (the genitive form) is always right, and me (the accusative form) is always wrong. She claims that while a gerund has certain trappings of a verb, it is actually a noun. This is based on the distributional properties: a gerund in a position like this can be easily replaced by things that are unambiguously nouns:
(4) My roommates are rather concerned about *me/my dance.
If the gerund is a noun, then it must take a genitive possessor, because that’s how nouns work. You can’t say me dance, so you can’t say me dancing. As I mentioned earlier, O’Conner’s not the only one to hold this opinion. James Kilpatrick, in his laundry list of complaints, agrees that gerunds are “nouns in drag” and thus require a genitive subject.
Boy, this would be a great, simple solution to a knotty problem, if only it ended up working. But of course it doesn’t, or else I wouldn’t be taking such a smug, self-satisfied tone in this post. So let’s look at the evidence that gerunds aren’t just plain nouns:
(5) My roommates are rather concerned about me dancing spastically.
Huh? What the devil is spastically doing there? That’s an adverb, it’s modifying dancing, and everyone knows that adverbs can’t modify nouns! You can’t replace dancing with dance in this sentence. (You might note that this sentence could be re-written with my spastic dancing, where dancing does behave like a noun, but all we’re trying to show here is that the gerund sometimes conducts itself in a manner unbecoming a noun.)
(6a) I enjoy eating/consumption.
(6b) I enjoy eating/*consumption cakes.
(6b) is another example where a noun can’t replace a gerund, even though it could in (6a). The problem here is that the verbiness of the gerund means it can take arguments (i.e., the direct object cakes), which a noun definitely can’t. Okay, so maybe it’s not that we users of English have been duped into thinking gerunds are verbs – maybe they really are verbs (or at least they have some characteristics of a verb). That’s one of the central points in Rob Malouf‘s thesis/book (which I think I mentioned earlier): gerunds aren’t verbs or nouns, they’re both. Malouf describes gerunds as mixed-category items, items that simultaneously display verbal and nominal properties, as in (7):
(7) His repeatedly visiting Mike angered me
The gerund here is modified by an adverb (one point in the verb column) and has a direct object (another point for verbdom), but is the subject of the sentence (one point in the noun column). So it’s painting with an overly broad brush to claim that the gerund is just a noun and that one must therefore use the genitive form (my dancing). And in fact there’s a number of situations where you oughtn’t to use the genitive form, such as:
(8) #My roommates are rather concerned about my dancing at their party tomorrow
Something about this sentence just seems wrong. Using my dancing seems to imply that the act of dancing has already occurred, since you’re referring to it as a noun, but the act has not yet happened, so that’s bad. Using me dancing instead makes it okay if this act of dancing has not yet occurred.
Okay, let’s review. Gerunds aren’t just nouns, they’re a mix of verbal and nominal properties; you can’t always replace a gerund with a non-gerundive noun; and sometimes you can’t use a genitive subject for a gerund. It looks like the prescriptivist position that only possessive subjects are allowed is a vast oversimplification of the state of the world.
Now we’re back at square one, with seemingly no insight about which form is correct, accusative [as in (5)] or genitive [as in (7)]. Except we have gotten one insight out of this – and it’s a big one. The answer is that both should be considered correct in most cases. To me, and I think to most people I’ve run this by, the difference in the two forms is that the genitive form (9a) seems to address the singing as a thing, while the accusative form (9b) addresses it as an event and focuses more on the person doing the singing. In most situations, this is a minor difference, so it’s okay to use either form. In some situations, like those in (8) or (9b), one form is a bit better than the other (at least to me), but these are surprisingly few and far between.
(9a) I object to his singing; he’s horribly off-key!
(9b) I object to him singing; this is my concert!
So my solution is as follows: use the genitive version (his singing) when you want to focus on what’s being done, and the accusative version (him singing) when you want to focus on the person doing it. If the focus doesn’t matter to you, then just pick whichever sounds better to you. If anyone objects, teach ‘em a little bit about mixed categories for me.
[Full disclosure: in O'Conner's defense, her prescription (always use the genitive) is followed by a sidebar in which she says "another complication is the kind of sentence that can go either way" (i.e., where the accusative form is also okay). However, she doesn't specify how to tell these sentences apart from the earlier sentences, which people think can go either way, but can't (in O'Conner's opinion). So that's not a terribly useful hedge.]