December 12, 2012

Fused participles: "His doing..." vs "Him doing..."

339 people responded to the survey that was run on the French Linguistics site the other day regarding what has been dubbed the fused participle by grammarians such as Fowler.

Participants were asked to consider the following two sentences:

(a) "Him doing the washing up will be helpful"
(b) "His doing the washing up will be helpful"

and were asked to say which of the two forms they thought people "should" say, with a variety of reasons offered. Notice that this is a fairly boring, ordinary sentence. And notice that in the tradition of primary school teachers the world over, we deliberately didn't define what we actually meant by "should".

We'll be analysing the results in more detail in a future article. But to give a brief overview, of the 88.2% (299) of respondents who ticked one of the available "definite" responses rather than ticking "Some other answer", opinion was essentially split down the middle on whether people "should" say version (a) or version (b). Specifically, 44.8% of respondents with a definite opinion were of the opinion that people "should" say "Him doing..." for whatever reason, while 55.2% were of the opinion that people "should" say "His doing...".

Some noteworthy figures among the more detailed breakdown are that 23.1% (69/299) believed that people should say "Him doing..." because "it's the only one of the two that sounds right", while a roughly similar number (27.4%, 82/299) believed that people should say "His doing..." because "'doing' is a noun". We'll be looking at why the latter rationale is problematic in more detail in the full article. Of the 299 respondents with a definite opinion, 11.4% chose one or other answer because with the other option "the sentence is ambiguous". Unfortunately, the ambiguous version was perceived as being either "his" or "him" in roughly equal numbers (18 vs 16)!

A small handful of people also thought the answer had something to do with Latin. It appears that "that was the structure used in Latin" is still fair trade when you're in the business of making up spurious arguments about language. More to follow!

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