A Word, Please: Rule-breaking

Glendale News Press

In a recent column, I shamelessly exploited my husband's dishwasher-related foibles in order to segue to some thoughts on grammar. The segue included the phrase "at the risk of him seeing" the column.

I thought it was a good risk. He doesn't read my column as regularly as he, say, rearranges the plates and bowls I place in a certain kitchen appliance (a practice readers of Barbara Wallraff's "Word Court" column once dubbed "redishtribution"). But I was taking another risk I hadn't calculated.

Three readers e-mailed me about that phrase. All were quite certain I had committed a grammar crime.

"Should that have been 'at the risk of his seeing it'?" Stan in Glendale asked. "I raise this because of a rule I learned, although I don't remember the actual rule."

Interestingly, the other two couldn't remember the rule, either. If only they had taken the time to march downtown to the Grammar Law Library and look it up in the Grammar Penal Code, they could have cited number and verse the rule I had violated and even told me the penalty for my grammar crime.

I'm being facetious, obviously. But the point is that, in grammar, there are no official prohibitions. Does that mean that language is a free-for-all? That anything and everything you might say is fine?

On the contrary. A sentence like "Cake us me serve will" is undeniably wrong (except, maybe, at Yoda's house). But that's not because there's a rule against it. It's because that sentence does not conform with the mechanical process we call grammar.

For a usage to be "wrong," it must be either 1. ungrammatical, or 2. contrary to dictionary definition ("This wine compliments this meal" instead of "complements"), or 3. unidiomatic — that is, inconsistent with generally accepted constructions ("I dissociate myself to this matter" as opposed to "dissociate myself from").

Which brings us back to the original question: Was I wrong to write "him seeing" instead of "his seeing"? The answer is subtle and it has to do with our first criterion: grammar.

Verbs like "risk" take direct objects, which are nouns (Dave risked his paycheck) or pronouns (Dave risked it). Gerunds, which are "ing" words derived from verbs, also qualify as nouns and can be objects of verbs (Dave risked dying). Objects of prepositions like "of" work the same way ("the risk of ruin," "the risk of it," "the risk of dying").

Either way, an object is a thing. So what is the thing being risked in "at the risk of him seeing it"? The seeing or the him? It's the seeing. That is the thing being risked.

Yet that's not what I wrote. I wrote "the risk of him," putting the pronoun "him" in the object position where "seeing" belonged. So with "him" doing its job, "seeing" was left hanging there with no clear role.

Sure, my passage looks very similar to a sentence like "I saw him dancing." But that's different. In that sentence, the object of the verb really is "him," and "dancing" is not a gerund. It's a participle functioning as a modifier.

So in my original passage, my "seeing" is tacked on to "him" in a way that makes no grammatical sense. That's why about half the experts I know of caution against this "fused participle" and instead recommend the "possessive with gerund" construction: "At the risk of his seeing," in which "seeing" is in position to be the object and "his" is a possessive modifier that simply introduces it.

So, because no court in the country could convict me, I'll admit that Stan and company had a point.

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