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Sentence in question (from a book entitled 'Advanced English Grammar'):

The speaker indicates that the activity of Jim scratching his knee is ongoing at a past moment in time.

Am I correct in thinking that a more grammatically correct way of writing this would be with '...the activity of Jim's scratching his knee...'?

If not, can you please explain why?

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Hi!

While we are waiting for moderators and other members to answer you, I have made up this dialog(ue) to explain how some (a few?)  people use the case before a gerund.

Reporter A: May I ask you a question about the economy?

President: Of course. I always enjoy your asking me any question. You are a very fair reporter.

*****

Reporter B: May I also ask a question?

President: No, you may not. I do not like you asking me anything! You are always writing negative things about me. I will now let Reporter C ask me a question.

My source for this differentiation is page 319 of Descriptive English Grammar (1950) by House and Harman.

Last edited by TheParser

Thank you for your dialog(ue)! I too have searched through multiple references to find a tidy explanation of the very differentiation you mention. After all, we could perfectly well write the following:

Reporter B: May I also ask a question?

President: No, you may not. I do not like your asking me anything!

The nuance arises from the shift in emphasis: now, the writer is focusing on the asking  (whereas, in the initial example, he/she is focusing on the person "doing" the asking).

Going back to my post concerning "the activity of Jim scratching his knee": does it not make more sense to stress the activity as opposed to Jim personally? Is it even grammatically correct to not use the possessive here...? I still have doubts...

(As an aside, perhaps I should just be content with the following observation in your grammar (pp. 319-320):

'Whether we call it a possessive form which has dropped its inflection, or regard it as an objective case form used as a modifier of the verbal noun is of little consequence. One may find in both written and spoken English numerous examples of violations of the rule requiring the possessive case form as the subject of the gerund; but in spite of some evidence of a trend away from the possessive form, our best writers and speakers do seem to prefer and to use it consistently wherever form and sound permit its use.')

Last edited by MlleSim

Thank you for your comments. Yes, I am a native speaker, but there are a lot of non-native speakers who know grammar rules much better than I (do).

I have an unusual  hobby: diagramming sentences using the Reed-Kellogg diagramming system. (I do not understand the tree diagrams that are taught in university linguistics classes.)

Hopefully, the moderators or another member will soon answer your question, for I, too, want to know the answer.

Happy New Year!

Last edited by TheParser
@MlleSim posted:


Going back to my post concerning "the activity of Jim scratching his knee": does it not make more sense to stress the activity as opposed to Jim personally? Is it even grammatically correct to not use the possessive here...? I still have doubts...



Hello, MlleSim—Please trust any reply you receive from TheParser as moderator-endorsed, at least by me. In my opinion, any learner who receives a reply from TheParser may count himself lucky.

Although I don't think I have ever disagreed with any explanation TheParser has given, it is possible that I allow myself greater liberties in modern (nontraditional) analyses than he allows himself.

The construction you have asked about is one that eternally recurs from time to time in grammar forums. It usually proves to be controversial; however, I have ceased to have strong feelings about the construction.

For I do indeed analyze your construction as its own construction—one which is, indeed, a close relative of the possessive construction, but one which is separate from it, not merely a bastardized, degraded, modern devolution of it.

Once criticized by H. W. Fowler as the "fused participle" construction, the construction has long been analyzed by modern linguists as the ACC-ing construction, in contrast with the POSS-ing construction.

How to parse the construction in a fine-tuned way is indeed a controversial matter, even among today's syntacticians. In fact, if I am not mistaken, there is not yet a received analysis of it.

While traditional Reed-Kellogg diagramming does not recognize the ACC-ing construction as separate from the POSS-ing construction, modern linguists generally analyze the ACC-ing construction as a nonfinite clause.

The best proof of the grammaticality of the ACC-ing construction, that I know of, also serves to demonstrate that a clause is involved. Expletive "there" can only show up in clauses. It is grammatical with ACC-ing, but not with POSS-ing:

(1) He didn't know about there being an emergency.
(2) *He didn't know about there's being an emergency.

Thank you so much for these replies! I admittedly have become quite side-tracked (or maybe just caught up) in my research into this, especially ever since I came across this comment (David's) in an earlier forum (here):

I find evidence in the grammar of George Curme (1931) that the above diagram is not off-base. In section 17-3-B, he cites the very same sentence ("Women having the vote reduces men's political power") as an example of the "nominative absolute in subject clauses."

It is mysterious that he calls it a nominative absolute rather than an accusative absolute, because I can't imagine anyone saying, "They having the vote reduces men's political power," which actually strikes me as ungrammatical. I do, however, find it grammatical, if a bit unnatural, with the substitution "Them."

The reference to nominative absolutes (as known as 'noun absolutes') led me to this website (KISS Grammar), and studying all the cited forms in combination with the exercises/analysis at the bottom (as well as consulting Curme's work myself) has now engendered quite an interesting 'mass' (or should I say 'mess'...) of information in my head.

Most helpful, however, with respect to 'They/Them having the vote reduces men's political power', has been Curme's work and, in particular, Section 7Ca on pp. 41-43. His analysis appears to demonstrate why 'they' is, indeed, the grammatically correct version ('them' illustrating the general (and unfortunate) tendency to employ the accusative instead of the nominative).

Going back to my original question, though, the KISS Grammar site and Curme's treatment of the nominative (noun) absolute have clarified why the accusative case in my sentence (the activity of Jim scratching his knee) could certainly make sense: 'Jim scratching' is being treated as a noun absolute, and, since it is the object of the preposition 'of', it necessitates the accusative case).

Now I will mull over David's closing example with 'there'.

Last edited by MlleSim
@MlleSim posted:


Most helpful, however, with respect to 'They/Them having the vote reduces men's political power', has been Curme's work and, in particular, Section 7Ca on pp. 41-43. His analysis appears to demonstrate why 'they' is, indeed, the grammatically correct version ('them' illustrating the general (and unfortunate) tendency to employ the accusative instead of the nominative).



I believe that the modern tendency is to use the possessive in such cases ("Their having the vote reduces men's political"), or occasionally the accusative, and that the tendency was never at any time in the history of English to use the nominative ("They having the vote reduces men's political power").

Have you ever encountered such a sentence in any actual use of English, written or spoken, at any time (between the dawn of English and the present day)? I haven't. Far from its being an unfortunate modern tendency, the notion that it was ever acceptable is unfortunate. The sentence is utter garbage.

Curme himself did not endorse that sentence, either. I mentioned that I was suprised that he called the sentence a nominative absolute in subject position, since calling it a nominative absolute implies that the nominative could be in play, as it clearly is not.

In other words, when I criticized that example, I was not criticizing an example that Curme had given. I was criticizing his treatment of it as a nominative absolute. If "Women having the vote" is to be called an absolute construction in "Women having the vote reduces men's political power," it is accusative.

If the phrase "They having the vote" were to appear as the subject of sentence, it would be with "having the vote" as a postmodifier of "they." That is, it would be a nonfinite relative clause, and the verb would need to be plural, just as it is in "They who have the vote reduce men's political power."

Last edited by David, Moderator

"I was criticizing his treatment of it as a nominative absolute. If "Women having the vote" is to be called an absolute construction in "Women having the vote reduces men's political power," it is accusative."

I find this observation quite confusing. Why do you say that "women having the vote" is accusative and that the nominative is clearly not in play? On what analysis is this based? I read your earlier post (linked above), but I still do not understand your reasoning.

"I believe that the modern tendency is to use the possessive in such cases ("Their having the vote reduces men's political"), or occasionally the accusative, and that the tendency was never at any time in the history of English to use the nominative."

I do not disagree that the modern tendency is to use the possessive in such cases, but I do question your latter statements about past tendencies and such sentences being "utter garbage".

Firstly, why are the examples listed by Curme on p. 157 irrelevant (e.g. "She and her sister both being sick makes hard work for the rest of the family", where "She and her sister both being sick" is the noun absolute that functions as the subject of "makes")?

Secondly, here are two similar constructions from my readings:

"With that he made off up the sliding deck like a squirrel, and plunged into the cabin. About half an hour later he returned – I still lying as he had left me." (The Master of Ballantrae by R. L. Stevenson (1889))

"Tina might have told her mother this, during one of their evenings of
confidences, but it had never occurred to her, she being neither proud nor
ashamed of it, nor even thinking it very out of the ordinary." (King Solomon Carpet by Barbara Vine (1992))

Even the Merriam Webster lists a similar construction in its definition of the nominative absolute ("he being absent, no business was transacted").

These last three are admittedly examples of adverbial usage, but do they all not nevertheless illustrate the use of the nominative case?

Finally, I would just like to note that, on pp. 490-491, Curme does highlight the competing nature between the participial clause (i.e. nominative absolutes) and the gerundial with the following example:

(a) "He saying (present participle) he is sorry alters the case."

(b) "His saying (gerund) he is sorry alters the case."

His observation is that (a) is generally colloquial, and (b) literary.

Last edited by MlleSim
@MlleSim posted:

"I was criticizing his treatment of it as a nominative absolute. If "Women having the vote" is to be called an absolute construction in "Women having the vote reduces men's political power," it is accusative."

I find this observation quite confusing. Why do you say that "women having the vote" is accusative and that the nominative is clearly not in play? On what analysis is this based? I read your earlier post (linked above), but I still do not understand your reasoning.

It was a REFUTATION of Curme's idea that a nominative absolute can function as subject. "They having the vote reduces men's political power" being obviously ungrammatical—something which no native speaker would ever say and which conflicts hideously with any natural sense of English in any register—we may conclude that "Women" must NOT be nominative in the grammatical sentence "Women having the vote reduces mens political power."

The other component of my reasoning is that, if "They having the vote" is grammatically to function as the subject of the sentence, it must have "having the vote" as a nonfinite modifier (a reduced-relative-clause modifier of the pronoun "they"), in which case the subject is "they" (plural) and the verb will accordingly need to be plural: "They having the vote reduce mens political power" (= "They who have the vote . . . ").

@MlleSim posted:


"I believe that the modern tendency is to use the possessive in such cases ("Their having the vote reduces men's political"), or occasionally the accusative, and that the tendency was never at any time in the history of English to use the nominative."

I do not disagree that the modern tendency is to use the possessive in such cases, but I do question your latter statements about past tendencies and such sentences being "utter garbage".

Find me a single example of any native speaker using that construction in real life (not in a grammar). Feel free to search from the 1400s all the way to 2023.

@MlleSim posted:


Firstly, why are the examples listed by Curme on p. 157 irrelevant (e.g. "She and her sister both being sick makes hard work for the rest of the family", where "She and her sister both being sick" is the noun absolute that functions as the subject of "makes")?



The pagination is different in the printed copy that I have. What is the section subheading? Curme uses outline headings for every subsection of his grammar. Is it an example from the wild, of something that a native speaker of English actually wrote? If so, I suspect that the speaker got confused because of the compound subject of the participle ("She and her sister . . .").

The sentence would be fine if the nominative absolute were functioning as a true absolute, which it is not in that sentence. Absolute constructions are called absolute because they are detached from the rest of the sentence in which they are found, though being adverbially related to it. They have their own subject and predicate and stand apart from the main clause, there being no word (e.g., a preposition or "subordinating conjunction") to connect them to it.

  • She and her sister both being sick, the rest of the family has hard work.
@MlleSim posted:


Secondly, here are two similar constructions from my readings:

"With that he made off up the sliding deck like a squirrel, and plunged into the cabin. About half an hour later he returned – I still lying as he had left me." (The Master of Ballantrae by R. L. Stevenson (1889))

"Tina might have told her mother this, during one of their evenings of
confidences, but it had never occurred to her, she being neither proud nor
ashamed of it, nor even thinking it very out of the ordinary." (King Solomon Carpet by Barbara Vine (1992))



Both of those examples are irrelevant, neither one of them containing nominative absolute as subject or object. Those examples are of nominative absolutes functioning as they always do, as absolutes, detached from the sentences to which they are adverbially related, with no preposition or subordinator to connect their subject-predicate units with the subject-predicate unit constituting the main clause of the sentence.

@MlleSim posted:

Even the Merriam Webster lists a similar construction in its definition of the nominative absolute ("he being absent, no business was transacted").

These last three are admittedly examples of adverbial usage, but do they all not nevertheless illustrate the use of the nominative case?



Such examples are irrelevant to your disagreement. You can't use a nominative absolute functioning as they always do as a way of disproving my point that nominative absolutes cannot, by definition (being absolute), function as the subject or object of a clause, and the accompanying point that, as a matter of fact, they never do so empirically, either. Find me a single high-quality real-life example, written by a novelist or poet or journalist, not an example made up by a grammarian in a century-old grammar.

@MlleSim posted:


Finally, I would just like to note that, on pp. 490-491, Curme does highlight the competing nature between the participial clause (i.e. nominative absolutes) and the gerundial with the following example:

(a) "He saying (present participle) he is sorry alters the case."

(b) "His saying (gerund) he is sorry alters the case."

His observation is that (a) is generally colloquial, and (b) literary.

What does example (a) come from? Is it a sentence that Curme made up himself? If so, then I submit that he was deceiving himself both about its being grammatical (it is revoltingly bad) and about its being absolute (which it obviously is not; "He saying he is sorry" has been placed in subject position).

Last edited by David, Moderator

Thank you for your observations.

Regarding your two questions: (1) the section subheading in Curme's Syntax is the very one that you cited previously; that is, Nominative Absolute in Subject Clauses (the sentence right before "Women having the vote..."), and (2) the last example including "He/His saying..." is under Subject of the Gerund (Chapter 14).

You asked me to "find (you) a single example of any native speaker, besides a misguided grammarian in his grammar, using that construction. Please feel free to search from the 1400s all the way to 2023."

I decided to first investigate two of the sources cited by Curme himself, despite his being "a grammarian in a century-old grammar". The sources seem authentic, so why not take a look.

The first comes from a letter addressed to John Sampson by Sir Walter Raleigh (an English statesman, amongst other things, born in the 1550s). He wrote on May 4th the following: "But things being as they are makes other things, which would have been different otherwise, different from what they would have been." (p. 275 of The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh (1879-1922)).

The second was penned by Jonathan Swift, a writer born in Ireland in 1667 and lauded as the "foremost prose satirist in the English language" by the Encyclopædia Britannica. In Journal to Stella (included in The Works of Jonathan Swift), he writes: "...but my reasons are that people seeing me speak to him causes a great deal of teasing." (p. 262). Note that this line is apparently cited by Jespersen in On Some Disputed Points (Jespersen being another quite famous linguist specialised in the grammar of the English language). Unfortunately, I do not have this work and therefore cannot consult his treatment of nominative absolutes in subject clauses.

I wanted to consult another grammar, though, and found Paul Roberts' Understanding Grammar (1954) quite helpful (albeit lacking an in-depth analysis). Under Function of Nominative Absolutes (starting on p. 354), he does indeed include the following observation:

"Occasionally the nominative absolute construction occurs as subject of a main clause: Linda in trouble was ample reason for my going."

(This case illustrates an ellipsed "being" ("Linda *being* in trouble was...").)

Are these (in my view, high-quality, real-life) examples not sufficient to demonstrate at least the use of nominative absolutes in subject clauses (use being distinct from validity)?

Here is what Bryan A. Garner says in the 1998 edition of his A Dictionary of Modern American English on pages 7- 8.

1. "The absolute phrase doesn't bear an ordinary grammatical relation to the rest of the sentence."

2. But it "adverbially modifies some verb." In "The court adjourning, we left the courtroom," that sentence is equivalent to "When the court adjourned, we left the courtroom."

3. "[S]ome writers mistakenly make an absolute construction -- what should be a 'nominative' absolute -- possessive <His being absent, the party was a bore>."

4. Some writers insert "with," thus  making it "something like an 'objective absolute.' " For example: "With Jacobson being absent, the party was a bore."

Last edited by TheParser

Thank you, TheParser, for contributing these four points to the discussion!

How do you interpret the third observation? Is Garner implying that the corrected version would read: "He being absent, the party was a bore"? (This is my understanding.)

Note, though, that these points do not address the use of nominative absolutes in subject clauses (as my own examples previously... ).

@MlleSim posted:


The first comes from a letter addressed to John Sampson by Sir Walter Raleigh (an English statesman, amongst other things, born in the 1550s). He wrote on May 4th the following: "But things being as they are makes other things, which would have been different otherwise, different from what they would have been." (p. 275 of The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh (1879-1922)).

The second was penned by Jonathan Swift, a writer born in Ireland in 1667 and lauded as the "foremost prose satirist in the English language" by the Encyclopædia Britannica. In Journal to Stella (included in The Works of Jonathan Swift), he writes: "...but my reasons are that people seeing me speak to him causes a great deal of teasing." (p. 262). Note that this line is apparently cited by Jespersen in On Some Disputed Points (Jespersen being another quite famous linguist specialised in the grammar of the English language). Unfortunately, I do not have this work and therefore cannot consult his treatment of nominative absolutes in subject clauses.



Those two examples do not demonstrate the point, unfortunately. They are just like the example "Women having the vote reduces men's political power" in that the construction in question functions as subject and the noun phrase functioning as the subject of the construction does not display case.

There is no more reason to believe that "things" is nominative in "Things being as they are makes other things different," or that "people" is nominative in "People seeing me speak to him causes a great deal of teasing," than there is to believe that "women" is nominative in the "Women having the vote" example.

@MlleSim posted:


I wanted to consult another grammar, though, and found Paul Roberts' Understanding Grammar (1954) quite helpful (albeit lacking an in-depth analysis). Under Function of Nominative Absolutes (starting on p. 354), he does indeed include the following observation:

"Occasionally the nominative absolute construction occurs as subject of a main clause: Linda in trouble was ample reason for my going."

(This case illustrates an ellipsed "being" ("Linda *being* in trouble was...").)



This example suffers from the same problem as the other three. "Linda" does not display case, so it is only the wish of the grammarian that "Linda" be nominative rather than accusative. The example itself is compatible with "Her in trouble was ample reason for my going."

Incidentally, Roberts's example would be analyzed as containing a "small clause" in modern syntax. The existence of small clauses as such had not been discovered at the time that Curme, Jespersen, and Paul Roberts—all of whom I revere, don't get me wrongwere analyzing the grammar of English.

@MlleSim posted:

Are these (in my view, high-quality, real-life) examples not sufficient to demonstrate at least the use of nominative absolutes in subject clauses (use being distinct from validity)?

No. Unfortunately, because none of them demonstrably exhibits the nominative case as the subject of the purported "nominative absolute in subject position," none of them serves as an example of what the grammarians tried to have them serve as examples of.

I read widely, in literature from the 15th century onwards, and I have yet to see a single real-life example of what you said was a "tendency" that has "unfortunately" been lost in present-day English. If it was ever a tendency, surely someone somewhere used the construction at some point in history!

If you are right, you should be able to find an example like "We fighting is not what they want to see a picture of." I submit that that is not English. I find such a sentence totally ungrammatical, and I am vehemently opposed to the idea that it was ever considered proper English in any register, let alone a tendency.

Last edited by David, Moderator

I do see your point and definitely acknowledge the inability to clearly identify the nominative case in the examples provided.

What about the following line from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (Act IV, Scene III): "For every storm that blows – I to bear this, that never knew but better, is some burden." Unlike the previous instances, a to-infinitive appears to be serving here as the predicate, but we can definitely observe the use of a nominative as the subject.

@MlleSim posted:

I do see your point and definitely acknowledge the inability to clearly identify the nominative case in the examples provided.

Thank you. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a handful of examples with nominative-case pronouns (when the construction appears as the subject of a clause), but I would be surprised to find that nominative pronouns had ever commonly been used as the subject of the construction.

I may check an exotic grammar in my collection: F. Th. Visser's An Historical Syntax of the English Language (4 vols.): In my experience, it is rare to find a pronoun used when the construction is found in subject position. Instead, either a possessive determiner is used or there is a name or noun phrase.

(1) Trump's winning the election surprised me.
(2) His winning the election surprised me.
(3) Trump winning the election surprised me.
(4) ?Him winning the election surprised me.
(5) *He winning the election surprised me.

I once wrote a research paper on the construction in an advanced syntax course at a university, and noted that it seemed to sit uncomfortably in subject position with a pronoun. The ACC-ing construction is much better with a pronoun in other positions: "I was surprised at him winning the election."

For what it's worth, I remember that, when I met to discuss my paper with my advisor, the world-class generative syntactician James McCloskey, I mentioned to him that I had read in Curme's grammar that the subject-position cases were nominative absolutes. When I gave an example, McCloskey cringed!

@MlleSim posted:

What about the following line from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (Act IV, Scene III): "For every storm that blows – I to bear this, that never knew but better, is some burden." Unlike the previous instances, a to-infinitive appears to be serving here as the predicate, but we can definitely observe the use of a nominative as the subject.

That's a different construction entirely. You're right that it is a type of absolute and is commonly analyzed as such by the few grammarians who note it in their grammars. It is rarely found these days, but I always enjoy seeing it. It's one of my favorite constructions. And, yes, I would use the nominative in it.

  • We shall arrive on the 21st, they to greet us upon our arrival.
Last edited by David, Moderator

As in Fowler's Modern English Usage, many usages adopted by native speakers, even by some literary celebrities, are criticized and not necessarily recommendable, not to mention worth being popularized. Recently, a heated discussion has been underway about the use of "women having the vote" as the subject of the main clause. Let's compare the following three sentences first: (quote from "Fowler's Modern English Usage}
1. Women having the vote SHARE political power with men.
2. Women's having the vote REDUCES men's political power.
3. Women having the vote REDUCES men's political power.
In the first, the subject of the sentence is women, and having (the vote) is the true participle attached to women. In the second, the subject is the verbal noun or gerund having (the vote), and women's is a possessive case (i.e. an adjective) attached to that noun. The grammar in these two is normal. In the third, the subject is neither women (reduces is singular), nor having (for if so, women would be left in the air without grammatical construction), but a compound notion formed by fusion of the noun women with the participle
having. Participles so constructed, then, are called FUSED PARTICIPLE, as opposed to the true participle of No.1 and gerund of No. 2. In the above No 3 may be observed a special fault often attending the fused participle --that the reader is trapped into supposing the construction complete when the noun is reached, and afterward has to go back and get things straight.
Such being the case, we can conclude that the fused participle is not recommendable, even though there are some examples written by native speakers, even by some literary celebrities.

Thank you. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a handful of examples with nominative-case pronouns (when the construction appears as the subject of a clause), but I would be surprised to find that nominative pronouns had ever commonly been used as the subject of the construction.

So, are you acknowledging here the very well possible usage/existence (albeit neither common nor correct) of the nominative-case construction in subject clauses?

I ask because, above, you noted this (the underlining is my own):

I mentioned that I was surprised that he called the sentence a nominative absolute in subject position, since calling it a nominative absolute implies that the nominative could be in play, as it clearly is not.

And yet what you just wrote seems to imply that, in a handful of examples, the nominative is/could be in play.

If I understand correctly, your general stance is that the nominative construction in subject clauses may well have existed (as many flawed constructions today), but it was never either (a) a tendency or (b) "actively" considered proper English (at best just "observed" by grammarians as "existing").

Is this correct?

For what it's worth, I remember that, when I met to discuss my paper with my advisor, the world-class generative syntactician James McCloskey, I mentioned to him that I had read in Curme's grammar that the subject-position cases were nominative absolutes. When I gave an example, McCloskey cringed!

Interesting However, the "cringeworthiness" of something does not inherently indicate anything concrete about the something itself. Coriander will elicit a cringe from some and a smile from others; all this proves is the existence of "camps", as is the case with nominative absolutes in subject clauses.

That's a different construction entirely. You're right that it is a type of absolute and is commonly analyzed as such by the few grammarians who note it in their grammars. It is rarely found these days, but I always enjoy seeing it. It's one of my favorite constructions. And, yes, I would use the nominative in it.

It may be an entirely different construction, but why could it not serve as potentially valid circumstantial evidence regarding (the origin of) the use of the nominative case as subject? This train of thought comes from Curme's discussion of the to-infinitive with an absolute accusative as subject in the 6th and 7th paragraphs of 21 e (Abridgment of Subject Clause, in my edition pp. 192-193).

Curme notes in the 7th paragraph:

"As the absolute accusative that arose under Latin influence was foreign to native English expression, it was replaced in early Modern English by the more familiar absolute nominative" (i.e. with "I to bear this...is some burden" being presumably "Me to bear this..." previously).

He then goes on to say that this modified construction was carried to Ireland by British Colonists in the 17th century. I do not know if Curme discusses somewhere in his grammar any more substantial link between this construction and the nominative absolute in question (apart from briefly under our now infamous Nominative Absolute in Subject Clauses (second to last paragraph)), but, this ignorance aside, on what grounds can we definitively exclude its potential influence on the use of the nominative as subject?

Last edited by MlleSim

Hi, MlleSim:

Your stimulating discussion  with David is now way over my head.

I do not know whether the following suggestion might be helpful, but when you get extra time, you might go to the "Books" section of Google. Then type in the words "they having the" (be sure to use the quotation marks. And use a lower-case "t" in "they").

Have a nice day!

Last edited by TheParser
@TheParser posted:

I do not know whether the following suggestion might be helpful, but when you get extra time, you might go to the "Books" section of Google. Then type in the words "they having the" (be sure to use the quotation marks. And use a lower-case "t" in "they").

Good evening, TheParser

A most helpful suggestion, thank you! I am in fact an avid user of such "techniques" on the web as a whole, but I have actually never gone directly to the "Books" section of Google! What a trove... mille mercis!

@MlleSim posted:

So, are you acknowledging here the very well possible usage/existence (albeit neither common nor correct) of the nominative-case construction in subject clauses?

I ask because, above, you noted this (the underlining is my own):

And yet what you just wrote seems to imply that, in a handful of examples, the nominative is/could be in play.



Bad English happens. How can I foreclose on the possibility of its existence in this case? I would be shocked if you could produce a single decent example of what you described as a tendency that has unfortunately been lost in the present. But it is possible that some author somewhere experimented thus.

@MlleSim posted:

If I understand correctly, your general stance is that the nominative construction in subject clauses may well have existed (as many flawed constructions today), but it was never either (a) a tendency or (b) "actively" considered proper English (at best just "observed" by grammarians as "existing").

Is this correct?



My stance is that what you and the grammarians you have cited want to describe as a nominative absolute construction in subject position is in reality neither nominative nor absolute; that is to say, I find that description and categorization to be 100% flawed.

In reality, it is the ACC-ing (accusative-ing) construction in subject position. You and those grammarians whom you admire imagine the case-less noun phrases in the examples you have cited to be nominative, whereas, if those noun phrases were converted to pronouns, their case would be accusative.

@MlleSim posted:


Interesting However, the "cringeworthiness" of something does not inherently indicate anything concrete about the something itself. Coriander will elicit a cringe from some and a smile from others; all this proves is the existence of "camps", as is the case with nominative absolutes in subject clauses.



James McCloskey is one of the greatest grammarians now living. Let's imagine that we could go back in time and test a construction on George Curme, Otto Jespersen, Henry Watson Fowler, and Paul Roberts, all of whom are now deceased. If they cringed at it, would you say that that was just their subjective reaction, and that maybe the construction was perfectly grammatical?

@MlleSim posted:

It may be an entirely different construction, but why could it not serve as potentially valid circumstantial evidence regarding (the origin of) the use of the nominative case as subject? This train of thought comes from Curme's discussion of the to-infinitive with an absolute accusative as subject in the 6th and 7th paragraphs of 21 e (Abridgment of Subject Clause, in my edition pp. 192-193).

Curme notes in the 7th paragraph:

"As the absolute accusative that arose under Latin influence was foreign to native English expression, it was replaced in early Modern English by the more familiar absolute nominative" (i.e. with "I to bear this...is some burden" being presumably "Me to bear this..." previously).

He then goes on to say that this modified construction was carried to Ireland by British Colonists in the 17th century. I do not know if Curme discusses somewhere in his grammar any more substantial link between this construction and the nominative absolute in question (apart from briefly under our now infamous Nominative Absolute in Subject Clauses (second to last paragraph)), but, this ignorance aside, on what grounds can we definitively exclude its potential influence on the use of the nominative as subject?

Infinitive clauses are different from participial ones. In formal syntax, they do not even belong to the same phrasal category. Let's not compare apples and oranges. You are bound to lead yourself even farther astray.

Last edited by David, Moderator

James McCloskey is one of the greatest grammarians now living. Let's imagine that we could go back in time and test a construction on George Curme, Otto Jespersen, Henry Watson Fowler, and Paul Roberts, all of whom are now deceased. If they cringed at it, would you say that that was just their subjective reaction, and that maybe the construction was perfectly grammatical?

I do not question his renown. What I question is the import of cringeworthiness in a cogent argument grounded in textual evidence and analysis.

I might add that you yourself prefaced your comment with "for what it's worth". In my opinion, relatively little.



Infinitive clauses are different from participial ones. In formal syntax, they do not even belong to the same phrasal category. Let's not compare apples and oranges. You are bound to lead yourself even farther astray.

Your dismissive attitude towards my proposition is of little use to those who, as myself, are here to learn about English syntax. More enlightening, especially from a learned person, would be an explanation as to why such parallels cannot be drawn.

Bad English happens. How can I foreclose on the possibility of its existence in this case? I would be shocked if you could produce a single decent example of what you described as a tendency that has unfortunately been lost in the present. But it is possible that some author somewhere experimented thus.



Going back to the nominative construction in hand:

My continued research is indeed leading me to increasingly doubt the soundness of Curme's assertion. I have been combing through works from the 1200s onwards, and I am most certainly not observing Curme's said "tendency" to use the nominative case (evidenced by nominative-case pronouns) when the construction appears as the subject of a clause.

So far in this thread, we have seen proof of two specific constructs of interest (examples from above; I apologise if this overview seems tedious and/or superfluous, but I find it helpful for my own analysis/investigation):

(1) the so-called "nominative" (??) absolute in subject clauses:

(a) "...but my reasons are that people seeing me speak to him causes a great deal of teasing." (p. 262 in Journal to Stella)

(b) "But things being as they are makes other things, which would have been different otherwise, different from what they would have been." (p. 275 of The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh (1879-1922))

The nominative, however, remains questionable given that we cannot prove these nouns are in the said case.


(2) the nominative absolute with nominative-case pronouns in adverbial clauses:

(a) "With that he made off up the sliding deck like a squirrel, and plunged into the cabin. About half an hour later he returned – I still lying as he had left me." (The Master of Ballantrae by R. L. Stevenson (1889))

(b) "Tina might have told her mother this, during one of their evenings of
confidences, but it had never occurred to her, she being neither proud nor
ashamed of it, nor even thinking it very out of the ordinary." (King Solomon Carpet by Barbara Vine (1992))

However, we still lack evidence of nominative-case pronouns being used as the subject of the so-called "nominative" absolute construction when the said construction appears as the subject of a clause.

Of Curme's numerous examples under Nominative Absolute in Subject Clauses, only one referenced example (the other two, shall we say, "candidates" with nominative-case pronouns lacking references...) includes a pronoun:

"...and ye thus doing bynds me to doe you as great a pleasure..." (p. 215 in the Plumpton Correspondence (1515))

However, "ye", as I found out in my Oxford, came to be used in the 15th century as an objective singular and plural (equivalent to "thee" and "you").

Moreover, whilst lost in my research surrounding this example, I noted the following:

F. Th. Visser includes this example twice in An Historical Syntax of the English Language. The first time, on p. 1099 (§ 1039), he cites Curme himself (i.e. "...and ye thus doing bynds me...") when discussing the -ing form as subject (as an aside, I worked my way through all the examples (from 1200 onwards) and found no instance of nominative-case pronouns. Instead, the examples were either "bare" or accompanied by a possessive determiner).

The second time, however (see § 1104 on p. 1185), he bypasses Curme and, as myself, seems to have consulted the Plumpton Correspondence directly/as a primary source. Except, his second version reads: "...and ye thus doing shall bind me, to my litle power, to do you pleasure."

This provides food for thought. Visser cites the very same page and, judging from the surrounding text in the example, the very same letter. I have consulted every edition of the Plumpton Correspondence available online as well as the work entitled The Plumpton Letters and Papers (edited by Kirby (1996); see Letter 219 on p. 198: "& ye thus doyng, bynds me to doe you as great a pleasure"), and yet I cannot find this last version employing "shall" (apart from in Visser's work). The "correction" nevertheless hints at what David noted above: that is, the construction seems to sit uncomfortably in subject position with a pronoun. "Ye...shall" being more common than "ye...bynds", the use of "shall" provides a remedy of sorts. Who made this modification, though, remains a mystery.

To bring this long post to a close:

Ample (though clearly not exhaustive) research has led to no instances of
nominative-case pronouns being used as the subject of the so-called "nominative" absolute construction when the said construction appears as the subject of a clause.

This finding calls into serious question Curme's claim that "the absolute nominative serves as the logical subject of the [participial] clause". As far as I can see, David is right: there was never a tendency to use the nominative.

So, my conclusion is that Curme was in fact mistaken. Case closed.

Last edited by MlleSim
@MlleSim posted:

I do not question his renown. What I question is the import of cringeworthiness in a cogent argument grounded in textual evidence and analysis.

I might add that you yourself prefaced your comment with "for what it's worth". In my opinion, relatively little.



Cringeworthiness, of the lack thereof, is highly important in most grammatical arguments, insofar as it provides the native speaker with a way of assessing the likelihood or unlikelihood that a given construction is grammatical.

If you read linguistic articles, you will find sentences with asterisks preceding them. These are sentences that the author of the article deems ungrammatical. Discovered patterns of ungrammaticality lead to the rejection of hypotheses.

In the type of case we have been considering, I have observed a pattern of ungrammaticality. Every example I try to come up with elicits the "garbage" reaction within me—or do you prefer "rubbish" reaction?

But it's always good to know one is not alone, especially when one has an eloquent disputant, who is clearly a native speaker with access to fabulous grammatical resources, publicly bucking the advice one has provided.

Consider the following examples:

(a) They requiring assistance, he is about to help them.
(b) They, requiring assistance, are on their way to the help desk.
(c) ?They requiring assistance are encouraged to go to the help desk.

(d) Their requiring assistance is not surprising.
(e) ?Them requiring assistance is not surprising.
(f) *They requiring assistance is not surprising.

The grammaticality judgements are mine. In (a), we have a nominative absolute construction. In (b), "requiring assistance" is not an absolute construction; it is an adverbial participial phrase. The sentence subject is "They."

Sentences (c) and (e) are of questionable grammaticality, I think. I am willing to consider "They requiring assistance" as an awkward, archaic way of saying "Those people requiring assistance"; and (e) doesn't seem disastrous to me.

Sentence (f) does indeed seem disastrous to me, and I can't imagine any example of that pattern seeming well-formed to any native speaker, except perhaps you. Jim McCloskey's cringing was just grist for my mill.

@MlleSim posted:


Your dismissive attitude towards my proposition is of little use to those who, as myself, are here to learn about English syntax. More enlightening, especially from a learned person, would be an explanation as to why such parallels cannot be drawn.



You're right, and I apologize for being dismissive, especially given the lengths to which you have gone in consulting fine grammatical resources. I've never met anyone else here with a copy of Visser. It makes me wonder with whom I am dealing. Well, I will say that I find Curme's example from Shakespeare, "I to bear this is some burden" very interesting. In the original, it is not so simple:

"But myself,
Who had the world as my confectionary,
The mouths, the tongues, the eyes and hearts of men
At duty, more than I could frame employment,
That numberless upon me stuck as leaves
Do on the oak, hive with one winter's brush
Fell from their boughs and left me open, bare
For every storm that blows: I, to bear this,
That never knew but better, is some burden:
Thy nature did commence in sufferance, time
Hath made thee hard in't."

I see Visser gives a similar example from Shakespeare: "Thou this to hazard needs must intimate Skill infinite" (All's Well, II, i, 186). Of course, nobody talks this way nowadays, nor would anybody prescribe such usage. It is difficult to say whether anyone would even find such sentences grammatical without knowing ahead of time that it was Shakespeare himself who penned them.

Last edited by David, Moderator

Cringeworthiness, of the lack thereof, is highly important in most grammatical arguments, insofar as it provides the native speaker with a way of assessing the likelihood or unlikelihood that a given construction is grammatical.

I am the first to acknowledge the utility, if not necessity, of having "an ear" for a language to act as a guide when initially gauging a structure's grammaticality. In German, "ein sprachliches Fingerspitzengefühl" captures quite nicely this feeling, this "certain inner something" that acts as a linguistic compass. However, I have come to tread very cautiously in this respect, for, as we all know, informal language can take a heavy toll on our sense of "cringeworthiness". How often does one hear this simple example amongst adults and children alike:

- Who is ready?
- Me!

I doubt whether many native speakers would now cringe upon hearing this.

My own "rubbish" reaction is grievously strong, though.

I see Visser gives a similar example from Shakespeare: "Thou this to hazard needs must intimate Skill infinite" (All's Well, II, i, 186). Of course, nobody talks this way nowadays, nor would anybody prescribe such usage. It is difficult to say whether anyone would even find such sentences grammatical without knowing ahead of time that it was Shakespeare himself who penned them.

I particularly like this example because it illustrates (a) the possible inclusion of an accusative object ("this") and (b) the archaic adverb "needs" (stemming from the noun "need" and the Germanic masculine/neuter genitive ending, -(e)s). We can still see traces of this genesis (pun alas intended) in Modern English, "sometimes" and "always" being two nice examples.

Last edited by MlleSim

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