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I am going through 'Infinitives' and 'Gerunds' on my own with the help of a grammar book written for Hindi speakers. The book focuses on common errors commited by Indian English-Speakers. There was an exercise in it which contained this particular sentence.

'She does not like his going to the cinema.

With a comment: The common error here is using the pronoun 'him' instead of 'his'.

I knew readily that 'his going' worked as a noun phrase, where 'his' qualified or described the noun 'going'

Further down the road, I encountered another one.

'She saw him crying.'

With a footnote: The common error here is using the pronoun 'his' instead of 'him'.

But when I tried to break this sentence down in fragments. I was stuck at a point.

I was confused whether 'crying' was a gerund or a past participle, whether it was a noun or an adjective. I think it can not be an adjective describing 'him' because adjectives always precede the noun. Then I thought that it could be an adverb describing the verb 'saw'. But I could not confirm my suspicions, as I personally do not know anyone formally trained in the field of English Grammar.

Please help me. Thanks in advance.

First Edit: 19 August (8:00 AM IST, 1:30 PM GMT) Having gotten four answers, that can be argued to be contradictory but at least differ in their approaches and convolute the matter further more, I am forced to think that I was under an illusion that there was a consensus among the Grammarians in settling the matters of English language. It was my naivity to think that I could analyse any sentence in the world provided that I went through 'A Students's Introduction to English Grammar' by Huddleston and Pullum.

I learnt a thing that even simple questions like asking the 'Word Class' a word belongs to, can spark heated discussions among the scholars of the language, and perhaps do not have a single answer.

But I am confused which answer to consider correct ( May be, All of them are correct but I need one that is more suitable or relevant to the question), So I again request a more simple explanation to remove my doubts, or at least a further clarification by those who have answered.

3 Answers 3

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I really think that the way we talk about participles is unnecessarily convoluted.

Present participles are an inflected form of verbs and can be used as part of a verb phrase, as an adjective, or as a noun. When used as a noun, it is also called a gerund.

She listened to him reading the play.

The primary focus is on the person who was performing the action. It describes the person. The participle is acting as an adjective and could be replaced by a subordinate clause.

She listened to him while he read the play.

You would not use “his” instead of “him” in the sentence above. Compare that with

She listened to his reading of the play.

She was listening to his interpretation of the play. The primary focus is on the activity rather than the person.

It is sometimes difficult to know whether the adjectival or noun function is the correct one. In that case, decide where you want the primary focus to be.

In your first example, the intent is to explain her dislike of the activity rather than the person.

Your second example is more difficult.

She saw his crying

is fine if you want to stress the activity she observed.

She saw him crying

is fine if you want to stress the person she observed.

EDIT I have seen the answers of JamesK and Davislor plus the comments by ErikE. To the extent that they disagree with me (and I am not sure that there is any disagreement, let alone a material one), it seems to me to make sense to clarify my answer a bit.

First, I will not argue about grammar with JamesK. The distinction between a possessive pronoun and a non-possessive pronoun with respect to participles is simply immaterial in colloquial English in the U.S. Thus, if we take a completely descriptive approach to grammar, I admit that

She doesn't like him going to the movies

is grammatical in the sense that the overwhelming majority of native speakers of American English will not notice anything off in that sentence and will interpret it as being identical in meaning to

She doesn't like his going to the movies

I have no interest in getting into an argument about descriptive and prescriptive grammar, but I agree with Fowler that we can use the English language to best effect if we recognize the possibility of implying subtle distinctions in meaning by careful use of the English lexicon and syntax. Pointing out such opportunities has value in itself without taking a position on whether they are or should be called rules of grammar.

Second, I agree with ErikE that

She saw his crying

does strongly suggest simultaneity, but I am not sure that that suggestion arises from the choice of possesive pronoun. Can you ever "see" something except when it is happening?

She recollected his crying

and

In her memory, she saw his crying

do not suggest simultaneity to me, but both have a possesive pronoun. Again, I do not want to argue. With most verbs without qualification, the possesive pronoun may well suggest simultaneity. It is an interesting thought, but I was not reaching for that depth of possible subtlety.

SECOND EDIT IN RESPONSE TO EDIT IN QUESTION

There are several vocabularies used to analyze English grammar. The difference in the vocabularies seldom if ever represents a difference in judgment on what is acceptable or what is recommended for academic or professional writing. JamesK uses the vocabulary that is currently fashionable academically. I never learned that vocabulary, which undoubtedly is more linguistically subtle than the one I learned decades ago.

But notice how small in meaning that those differences in vocabulary turn out to be. He says it “is confused thinking” to distinguish between gerunds and participles in English. I say that the way we talk about participles is “unnecessarily convoluted.” Is that a material difference in meaning?

If we define “gerund” to mean “a form of a verb used as a noun and different from a participle,” he and I agree there is no such thing in English. You can define a “gerund in English is the present participle of a verb used as a noun representing the activity or state denoted by the verb.” I do not happen to see that such a definition is particularly useful, and I doubt that JamesK would either.

Let me take a different example.

I saw the angry man

I saw the swimming man.

JamesK would presumably agree with me that “angry” is an adjective, and I agree with him that “swimming” is a participle. He says that I cannot make the argument that “swimming is being used as an adjective,” but I do make exactly that argument. That difference in opinion is so slight that it is not worth bothering about because I am sure that he and I agree that both sentences are perfectly good English.

He and I agree that in colloquial English, “him going” and “his going” are both acceptable and over 90% of native speakers will not interpret the one as having a different meaning than the other.

Where he and I may have a meaningful difference in opinion is about prescriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar stipulates as rules what I prefer to consider strong suggestions for formal writing. I agree with your text that, at least in formal writing, (1) “his crying” and “him crying” can be used to suggest slightly different meanings, and (2) that difference in meaning can be analyzed in terms of whether the participle is being used as an adjective or as a noun. The term “gerund” just complicates the issue.

But I feel that the noun versus adjective distinction is not helpful in terms of actual usage as compared to grammatical analysis. My personal guideline is what I want to emphasize. If I want to emphasize the activity, I use a possessive. If I want to emphasize the actor, I do not use a possessive.

I watched John swimming

The emphasis is on John.

I watched John’s swimming.

The emphasis is on swimming.

I do not claim that these are rules of grammar because both sentences are grammatical. I recommend these as suggestions for effective writing.

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  • To me, in "She saw his crying," not only is the activity the focus, but there is a sense of collapsing the crying activity to a true/false: the single fact of it having occurred or not. In "She saw him crying," there is a greater sense of elapsing/continuous time. She observed him actually crying and was present while it was occurring (over time). The sentences could almost be rewritten as such to have the same meaning: "She saw the fact that he had cried [or previously had been crying]" and "She saw him while he was carrying out the process of crying." Might be just me, though.
    – ErikE
    Aug 17, 2022 at 17:22
  • Can you ever "see" something except when it is happening? You can see (anticipate) something that will happen. You can see the result of something that has happened.
    – AcK
    Aug 17, 2022 at 21:17
  • @ack Yes, there are figurative uses of “see” that do not imply simultaneity. I actually gave an example in my edit. But, in its primary sense of something registering on your retina, it implies virtual simultaneity. The whole issue of simultaneity is a subtlety on a subtlety. I agree with ErikE that the example implies simultaneity; I am dubious that a possessive pronoun can be responsible. I truly do not think a question on the pronouns appropriate to participles is a good place to distinguish between literal and figurative uses of “see.” So, I concede that you are right. Aug 18, 2022 at 1:31
  • "Present participles are an inflected form of verbs and can be used as part of a verb phrase, as an adjective, or as a noun. When used as a noun, it is also called a gerund." Present participle and gerund are different things that happen to have the same form in English. In other languages, they take different forms. For instance, in Spanish the gerund and infinitive take the same form, while the present participle is distinguished. Aug 18, 2022 at 6:30
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    @Ashutosh In "him crying", it's a participle. In "his crying", it's a gerund. Aug 18, 2022 at 6:34
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I think the short answer is, “a gerund.” Crying is grammatically a verbal noun in the sentence. “She saw his crying.” It’s modified by an adjective to make a noun phrase, which is the direct object of saw.

“She saw him crying,” is harder to fit into tradiitonal English grammar (which is why some older textbooks thought that “his crying,” which was more common until the 1980s, was the only correct form). You can think of it as a shortened version of something like, “She saw him [as he was] crying.” This is parallel to a sentence like, “She caught him [in the act of] opening the fridge,” where you cannot substitute his for him.

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  • I've edited the question.
    – Ashutosh
    Aug 19, 2022 at 4:32
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It is a participle and an object complement.

A verb sometimes requires more than the direct object to make it "complete". There are lots of special cases, you probably know of verbs that require an additional noun "She gave him a gift", or an adjective "She made him happy."

But it is pretty common for a participle to be used as a complement. It gives information about what the object was doing at the time. This fits that use. It means "I saw him, and at that time he was crying."

You can use past (ie passive) participles too: "I saw him beaten" means "I saw him and at that time he was beaten (by someone)"

Now you ask if it is a gerund or a participle. This is confused thinking as English doesn't distinguish between them. You ask if it is a noun or an adjective - and it is neither! And you can't make an argument about it being "in place of" a noun or adjective, since object complements can be either.

Your book errs in condemning "She does not like him going to the cinema". This sentence is good grammar. It means "she does not like him when he goes to the cinema" On the other hand "She does not like his going to the cinema" is formal, and would mean that she doesn't like the act of going to the cinema (as performed by him). Similarly "She saw his crying" would mean (paradoxically) that she saw the act of crying, without seeing him. This is why "She saw his crying" is odd and little used.

In everyday or colloquial English, no real distinction is made between these situations.

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  • The one thing that I infer from your comment is that the 'ing' form of verb contains the same element of a progressive action whether it works as a verb as in 'He is crying' or as a participle as in 'I saw him crying'. And the passive form indicates that the action has been completed as in 'boiled vegetables' or 'I saw him beaten'. Now, in the sentence 'She does not like him going to the cinema' , it should mean 'She does not like him when he is performing the act of going to the cinema'. Am I right?
    – Ashutosh
    Aug 17, 2022 at 15:06
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    Yes, thats right, but as I said, except in rather formal English, "She doesn't like him going to the cinema" is simple the normal, grammatically correct form and no distinction is made between "she does like him when he goes..." and "she doesn't like the act of going performed by him". So "She doesn't like him going to the cinema" means both.
    – James K
    Aug 17, 2022 at 15:40
  • Got it! Thanks for helping me out.
    – Ashutosh
    Aug 17, 2022 at 15:44
  • I have to say that the grammatical errors in your answer are distracting.
    – ErikE
    Aug 17, 2022 at 17:25
  • @ErikE Please correct them. That is why StackExchange has an edit button under each answer.
    – James K
    Aug 17, 2022 at 19:27

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