6

I was reading a book and encountered this sentence (emphasis added by me):

  1. I know it without his telling me.

Despite being grammatically correct, it seemed a little strange to me. What came to my mind was this sentence instead:

  1. I know it without him telling me.

Another case was this:

  1. I can’t control the fact of temptation, but there’s no chance of my giving in to it.

QUESTION: Is using "me" here in #3 (or "him" as done in the previous one) correct? If so, what's the difference between the two?

  • 1
  • 2
    I'm going to answer this with a couple syntax trees. – CoolHandLouis Jan 11 '15 at 11:16
  • 2
    I'm going to just throw the words genitive & accusative in here, then stand back & watch the resulting fight :P – Tetsujin Jan 11 '15 at 11:18
  • 6
    The difference is, if you want to be treated nicely, ask here. <Ducks> – CoolHandLouis Jan 11 '15 at 11:19
  • 3
    This is my take on it: english.se is much older, established, and typically deals with subjects at a higher level. Furthermore, with the advent of (the highly successful and wonderful) ell.se, there was overlap and too many beginner questions on english.se. Therefore they have tighter controls over what they allow. We can field the easier stuff, while also providing excellent answers to any question. There are very knowledgeable people who frequent both sites, and difficult questions can be fielded here as well. – CoolHandLouis Jan 11 '15 at 11:34
7

NOTE ADDED TO ANSWER

The OP clarified that he/she wanted to know the semantic difference between these two phrases. I will maintain that, for the general reader, both sentences are generally considered acceptable, and the semantics are identical for practically all purposes. There are some subtle variations in style or meaning in which one form might be better than another.

My position is supported by an absolutely outstanding work, with an unassuming name, General properties of Gerunds, Participles and Verbal Nouns (PDF). Based on this work, the phrase "his telling me" seems to be more traditionally (perhaps prescriptively) correct. Also, "him telling me" has more of a feel of an independent clause (aka IP), "subject verb object", while "his telling me" is more like a dependent clause (aka DP). The author also indicates there is ambiguity in how to parse these. Don't hesitate to search the General properties of Gerunds, Participles and Verbal Nouns for semantics to find additional relevant information.

I want to highlight this work (and the author) and encourage an interested linguistics reader to investigate further. It's a very interesting (advanced yet sometimes very readable) exposition on many facets of this complex issue, including this exact issue of semantics. The above chapter seems to contain (directly or indirectly via reference) the best research on the theory to this question through the publication date.

For reference, the above text is part of a book (also with an unassuming name), Complementation in English: A Minimalist Approach (Cornilescu 2003, Google Ref) I must say Alexandra Cornilescu has many outstanding and intriguing papers/books that I'll be reading. Here's the Wikipedia Page (translated) about him.
General searches to find these works, see:

I haven't the time to dig further into this at this point. Anyone else is free to use the source I've provided to create/enhance their own answer.


The following is my entire answer before the above note was created, and I still stand by it's value.

Preface

For the grammar involved, this question has a very good answer in https://english.stackexchange.com/a/2628/61171 (Credit @CopperKettle for reference.) I'll attempt to convey my native AmEng intuition with examples so we can avoid some of the heavier grammar lingo.

Second, let's simplify by giving him a name, "John". Now we can talk about John directly. This is simply a teaching aid.

Semantics

In isolation, there's no significant semantic difference between the two sentences. They are saying exactly the same thing in slightly different ways.

But in some contexts, the differences could have some differing semantic pull. The issue of semantic differences might be rephrased: If you polled 100 people, what meanings would be interpreted, and what would be the percentage of each meaning?

Grammar Basics

Let's review some basic grammar.

  • he and him are pronouns that can be replaced with "John".

    • I saw John.
    • I saw him.
    • John saw me.
    • He saw me.
  • his is a possessive pronoun and can be replaced with John's:

    • John's bike is green.
    • His bike is green.
    • I saw John's bike.
    • I saw his bike.

Now consider some gerunds in which their function is more clear than the OP's sentences:

  • I saw John dancing.
  • I saw him dancing. (I saw him doing something. This conveys a sense of action.)
  • John's dancing is beautiful.
  • His dancing is beautiful. ("His dancing" is the subject. I'm talking about his act of dancing, as if it were a static thing.)

Note in the last example, "His dancing" is the subject of the sentence and functions like a noun.


FIRST SENTENCE

For the first sentence, his is a possessive pronoun, and "his telling me" functions as a noun. The following sentences all have a similar feel to them (relative to the "him" sentence):

  • I know it without his telling me.
  • I know it without John's act of telling me.
  • I know it without John's advice.
  • I know it without advice.

Here's a tree showing a traditional grammar layout of the sentence:1

enter image description here

Here's a more modern syntax tree:2
enter image description here

SECOND SENTENCE

In the second sentence, the word "him" is the same as "John". Note the following:

  • John told Paul a secret.
  • He told him a secret.

Now consider the following:

  • It's funny to see John dancing.

"John dancing" has an active meaning. John is hypothetically doing something. Here's a modern syntax tree:3

enter image description here


Footnotes on Syntax Trees

This section demonstrates how to easily create the images contained within this answer. As such, this section is only ancillary technical information and is separate from the answer proper.

Below, I show how to generate Labeled Bracket Notation and how to render that notation into an image of a tree.

For the modern grammar syntax trees, I went to the the Stanford Parser and entered the first sentence. I substituted [ for ( and ] for ) and plugged that into http://yohasebe.com/rsyntaxtree. That gave a pretty picture. I usually resize these in something like pixlr to make them smaller. These trees use artificial intelligence natural language processing (NLP), and as such, may give less-than-ideal or incorrect results.

1. Sentence 1 - Traditional Grammar

The first sentence I changed to typify a traditional grammar.

[S_Traditional-Grammar
    [Subject I]
    [Predicate 
        [Verb-"know"
            [Object it]
            [PP 
                [PRP without]
                [NP
                    [N-POS his] 
                    [NP
                        [GER-PH^ telling me]
                    ]
                ]
            ]   
        ]
    ]
]

2. Sentence 1 - Modern Syntax Tree

The Stanford Parser results for the modern syntax tree didn't express what I wanted, so I modified it slightly.

  [S
    [NP [PRP I]]
    [VP [VBP know]
      [NP [PRP it]]
      [PP [IN without]
          [NP his telling me]
      ]
    ]
  ]

3. Sentence 2 - Modern Syntax Tree

For the second sentence, I liked the Stanford Parser result. It's still slightly simplified.

[ROOT
  [S
    [NP [PRP I]]
    [VP [VBP know]
      [NP [PRP it]]
      [PP [IN without]
        [S
          [NP [PRP him]]
          [VP [VBG telling]
            [NP [PRP me]]]]]]
    ]]
  • In my humble opinion as a learner, answering an ELL question with syntax trees is a bad idea in general. – user1513 Jan 11 '15 at 13:57
  • @Fantasier, I can imagine a scenario: ell.se with every answer explained with a syntax tree. "HERE'S THE ANSWER..." SPLAT.. syntax-tree. "Next!" Sure, that would be a nightmare. But who cares? We've become the fast-food of English language help."ONE DOUBLE CLAUSE SYNTAX-TREE, MINUS THE EXTRA LEAVES, COMING UP!" SPLAT! syntax-tree. "Next!" Yeah. Nightmare. But people will come in droves, and we'll be able to handle massive growth. In reality, there's no more people actually making the trees. It's all done by NLP. And all the trees are infected with the NLP bugs... I agree that would be bad. ;) – CoolHandLouis Jan 11 '15 at 21:13
  • @CoolHandLouis What I mean is, a lot of learners, even at advanced level, are not familiar with syntax trees, and I'm pretty sure that many don't even know what syntax is. This is not necessarily because they don't have enough knowledge of English, but a lot of times because they simply don't know basic linguistics. The way EFL/ESL is taught is very different from the way English linguistics is taught. This is ELL.SE, so I expect answers to be as simple and comprehensible for learners as possible. – user1513 Jan 12 '15 at 12:14
  • So because people don't know, they shouldn't be told? Sounds circular to me. However, I can agree that instructing solely with trees is a bad idea. I've improved my answer with better instruction. But some people are visual learners, and a picture can enhance understanding. (My prior comment was just for fun, btw. :) – CoolHandLouis Jan 12 '15 at 18:27
  • 2
    Thanks for the comprehensive answer. I was mostly interested in the semantic difference, but I the syntax trees was a great additions! (No worries about familiarity with these, as I had the NLP course in my Masters). So in summary: they're both grammatically correct and not different semantically, am I right? – Mahm00d Jan 13 '15 at 6:33
1
  1. I know it without his telling me.
  2. I know it without him telling me.

Another case was this:

  1. I can’t control the fact of temptation, but there’s no chance of my giving in to it.

QUESTION: Is using "me" here in #3 (or "him" as done in the previous one) correct? If so, what's the difference between the two?

Let me provide some info as related to your question about versions #1 and #2.

  • It seems that version #1 ("his"), which uses a genitive subject for the -ing clause, might not be completely acceptable, and perhaps even, it might be considered to be non-standard.

  • It seems that version #2 ("him"), which uses an accusative subject for the -ing clause, is unquestionably acceptable in today's standard English.

Here's some related info from CGEL, page 461:

(f) Subject of clausal complement of with/without

Pronouns in this position normally appear in accusative case:

  • [16.i ] We set off again, the Rover going precariously slowly in very low gear up hills, with me staying on its tail in case it petered out altogether.

  • [16.ii ] With me out of the way, there would be no one to curb his excesses.

Note that this is one place where a gerund-participial in complement function cannot take a genitive subject, but unlike the construction dealt with in (b) above the accusative is not here an informal alternant to a nominative. (fn 61)

and,

footnote 61: Nominatives are occasionally attested (e.g. * If I kept it secret, I could not use it without he in time asking awkward questions as to where I had obtained all the money), but they are rare enough to be set aside as errors.


Note that CGEL is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

  • 1
    @Araucaria I wonder if this might not also be influenced by hypercorrection? Usually the genitive version is considered "more correct" by teachers, and this with/without case is the unusual one--where the genitive version isn't even considered standard (by CGEL). Consider: "It was accomplished without them asking for any help" (okay) vs "It was accomplished without their asking for any help" (er,…) The last version seems okay if read quickly, but if it is read slowly, er . . . maybe a bit awkward, no? Anyhow . . . – F.E. Jan 13 '15 at 22:03
  • 1
    @F.E. Just about all the without examples sound good with a genitive subject to my ear - so far ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 14 '15 at 0:42
  • 1
    Hey, art thou gently sideways knocking my reduced relative clauses? (not saying that's not worth knocking) :D Btw, have you seen this one I'm getting a bit of a worriedness from peeps in the comments, but at least from someone who can discuss things a bit ... PS Tell me if I've stuffed anything up on this one ... , please! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 16 '15 at 0:45
  • 1
    What are you still doing up?!! :) I'll have a look a bit later. I don't have a MWDEU though. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 16 '15 at 10:50
  • 1
    @Araucaria Well, let me copy this comment here, in case it magically disappears: "Professor Lawler posted the following insightful and authoritative answer ..." <== How the heck is that an "authoritative answer"? They read like a handful of quickly written comments. That is not a real answer post. It should be moved into the comments section. Wait, these were comments to begin with. What the heck is going on here? – F.E. Jan 16 '15 at 22:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.