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Obj of Prep + Gerund

In another language forum in which I regularly participate, the following debate ensued:

I am envious of his getting rich. I am envious of him getting rich.

American English speakers argue that the second construction (him getting rich) is impossible, given the fact that if the noun object were NOT a gerund, the construction would not make sense.

For example:

I am envious of his success. I am envious of him success.

Our BE friend argued that “him getting rich” was indeed correct because the gerund construction compliments the direct object pronoun.

Anyone care to chime in?

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"I am envious of his success" sentence is a noral type of grammatical construction. But if you insist the "him" in lieu of "his", then suffice it to change "success" into "succeed". It would be "I am envious of him succeed."

There is no problem if you use both "I am envious of his getting rich" and "I am envious of him getting rich" constructions in informal English. But look more closely to the sense in the paragraph and the situation of the composition (whether you will finish your composition more formally or socially).

enton November 11, 2005, 11:25pm

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"Hers" is plural for her and "His" is plural for "Him".Sooo, it seem to make more sense to say:

"I am envious of Him getting rich". Or,"I am envious of Her getting rich".

We wouldn't say "I am envious of Hers getting rich " so why would we say "I am envious of His getting rich"???

Italia_galia November 12, 2005, 1:24pm

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I've got to say I disagree with both of the above responses.

First, "his" and "hers" are posessive forms of "him" and "her", *not* plurarls. The plural of both "him" and "her" is "them".

Second, "I am envious of him getting rich" is not parallel to "I am envious of him succeed." It's parallel to "I am envious of him succeeding." (Getting is parallel to succeeding, not succeed).

I'm pretty sure both constructions are perfectly acceptable, although I can't explain the second one. (The first "makes sense" intuitively to me, whereas the second is just something I've been taught is acceptable.)


Avrom November 13, 2005, 8:29pm

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The shading I see between the two forms there is:

"I am envious of the process (of *getting rich*) that this person has undergone"

as opposed to

"I am envious of the fact of this person undergoing (the process of *getting rich*)"

the latter of which seems to me to be a shade of meaning halfway between the former and "I am envious of him for having become rich"

Moltare November 15, 2005, 4:42am

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In the former case, I envy his action of getting rich. In the second case, I envy him, it seems. Shades of meaning aside, the argument boils down to whether "him getting rich" is a properly constructed noun. Since a gerund acts as a noun, and "him success" doesn't scan well as a noun, the conclusion is that "him getting rich" shouldn't either.

I would prefer a reconstruction of the sentence to use a noun rather than gerund. "I envy his success", "I envy that he gets rich" or as moltare suggested, "I envy him for getting rich".

C November 15, 2005, 6:41am

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I retract my earlier statement, I forgot that gerunds also act as adjectives/modifiers. "Him" usually cannot take modifiers, though so "him getting rich" still sound awkward.

"I envy him getting rich" is parallel to "I envy a girl getting rich," it's awkward conceptually but gramatically correct. It would sound better in the the conditional case: I'd envy a girl getting rich; I'd envy him getting rich.

C November 15, 2005, 7:46am

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Also, I subconciously avoid passive verbs. I just realized that I used "envy" in all of my examples rather than "am envious".

C November 15, 2005, 7:48am

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as an australian english speaker, the second one is fine.

selfish November 24, 2005, 1:38am

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Both sentences are correct, but they mean subtly different things. Envy is a particularly bad word to use for this example, because it is such a confusing word (I envy his car vs. I envy him his car vs. I envy him for his car). You could even say, awkwardly enough: "I envy him his getting rich"

To see that the construction "I envy him getting rich" is not that odd, you have to look at similar constructions.
* I drew him standing in a corner.
* I caught him stealing a piece of toast.
* I am worried about him driving home in that condition.

In all three of these cases you could say something akin to "I am worried about his driving home in that condition" ("I drew his standing in a corner") it seems pretty stilted or old-fashioned to me.

Also, there's often an implied preposition or phrase:
* I am envious of him (for (his)) getting rich
* I drew him (as (he was), while (he was)) standing in a corner.
* I caught him (in the middle of, while he was) stealing a piece of toast.
* I am worried about him driving home in that condition. (not much I can do with that one)

What's also interesting is that this problem simply doesn't come up with females, since the female accusative/dative pronoun is the same as the female possessive (I hit her and her husband).

Jun-Dai November 29, 2005, 12:39pm

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The difference I see here is that the first example uses a gerund, whereas the second uses a participle. So:

I am envious of his (getting rich.) <-- this functions as a "verbal noun." It is appropriate that a noun can be possessed: ".. his (noun)."

I am envious of him (getting rich.) <-- this functions as a "verbal adjective." The grammar is a little loosely constructed, but you could see the equivalent in a relative clause: "...him, who is getting (becoming) rich." The whole "who..." clause serves as an adjectival modifier that describes "him." Now, whether this is "proper" English or not is beyond me, but it makes sense to me logically. However, I am a Latin major and these types of constructions would work in that language, at least.

Ben December 2, 2005, 11:59am

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1) if one googles "stand him crying", the phrase "I can't stand him crying" comes up as not unusual, even in print, although it does not seem to come up on Ngram; whereas "stand his crying does".

2) To my ear, using possessives with gerunds now sounds somewhat stilted or forced (indeed I now tell my students not to bother)

Would appreciate any empirical data to see whether the possessive+gerund is now out-dated.

jayles the unwoven August 4, 2015, 8:29pm

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@jayles - I don't have it to hand, but I seem to remember that in the 3rd edition of Fowler, Burchfield suggests that in sentences like 'She doesn't like him/his smoking in the house', use of the object pronoun is more common than use of the possessive (at least in British English), and most course books seem to agree that the former is more normal in spoken English, while the latter is more formal.

The original question concerns an object pronoun or possessive after a preposition, but I don't think there's any real difference. Both 'doesn't like' and 'of' theoretically demand an object, and therefore a noun phrase, which I think is Jennifer2's argument. However, real language doesn't always follow theory, and in this case I would agree with you. (It should really be the other way round - theory should be based on real language).

Incidentally, although it doesn't remove the 'problem', I think I'd get rid of that preposition, and simply say 'I envy him (his) getting rich'.

Another interesting aspect is when the -ing form is the subject rather than the object, where the object form can seem just too informal for many:

His smoking in the house annoys her.
Him smoking in the house annoys her.

Warsaw Will August 5, 2015, 1:58am

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@WW Thanks. I do agree that possessive+gerund as subject is somewhat more palatable.

Oddly I am happy with "His smoking annoyed her." But adding in "in the house" seems to make it sound slightly ungainly to my ear.

However these days I seem to baulk at the possessive even in formal writing :
"The board objected to the developers putting forward fresh proposals at this late stage".

Hewins (Advanced Grammar in Use) agrees with the idea that "developers' " here would be more formal. I just think that forcing Latinate grammar onto English is now a thing of the past.

jayles the unwoven August 5, 2015, 4:30am

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Yes     No