Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Gerund - Beauty And Its Violation

It's true, not all my thoughts are deep ones, not all my concerns are worthy of the cogitation and time I put into it. Sometimes, I indulge in foibles. A “foible” is “a minor weakness or eccentricity in someone's character.” “Minor eccentricity.” I plead guilty.

Sometimes, the smallest issues can just reach up and grab you – who knows why? In this case, I happened to be exposed to the logic of grammar early in school, and it stuck. In its own way, and I don't claim that it's world-shaking, grammar is just so beautiful. The brain is wired for it; no matter the particular language, the basics of grammar are universal, not to say that the details are. Grammar is, again in its own way, a mirror of who we are, because a great deal of who we are is how we think.

In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, the great sociobiologist, E. O. Wilson, who writes spare little books making trenchant and insightful points, in his recent great book Genesis places the invention of language among the six most important achievements of evolution – right up there alongside the beginning of life itself and the development of the cell. Imagine that!

And so it is, not to leave you in further suspense, nor to lose your interest with a perhaps already overlong introduction, that somehow, by some unknown means, I have developed a foible. This foible involves a violation, a violation of language, a persistent and extensive violation of the English language itself. This violation is happening to, as is often the case with violations, a frequently overlooked and underappreciated and apparently unprotected element of society in this case, the society of the English language.

What is this small and unprotected element? I am speaking of the gerund. What is a gerund, that element of grammar that lurks in the back pages of the grammar books? It is “a form that is derived from a verb but that functions as a noun, in English ending in -ing, e.g., asking in do you mind my asking you?”

This example illustrates the point of my foible. Notice that, since “asking” is a nominative form, it requires an adjectival modifier. The example correctly uses “my,” a possessive pronoun. But increasingly common usage would employ “me” rather than “my,” a small difference, but one that grates on my language-sensitive ears and rattles my grammar-sensitive mind, and impels me to respond and to set the world aright. I hear it on TV and I yell at the TV, “It's a gerund! Not “me,” it should be “my!” The TV doesn't seem to respond, although my wife sitting beside me, with her capacity for patience, looks at me askance and suffers me, although I wish it were “suffers along with me,” but I'm afraid it's not, even though she was an English major.

But then the other day I saw it in print, in the Chronicle sports section, utilized by the fine writer Bruce Jenkins. “Ah hah!” I thought, a chance to make some headway! So I launched this email sally in hopes of stemming the tide.

Dear Bruce:

Although I hesitate to raise an issue of grammar with such a fine professional writer, my consuming mania in defense of the fading recognition of the gerund compels me to do so. In your latest article, written with your characteristic engaging style and high intelligence, you write of Milwaukee and Giannis, and I quote: “...they might forego the trade option and gamble on him staying....”

While this is an acute basketball analysis – I myself would take the gamble, were I the Bucks, if I thought it had even a 25% chance of succeeding – the grammar is less accurate. “Staying” is a gerund, which, although derived from a verb, is actually a noun. As a noun, it requires an adjectival form as a modifier. “Him” is not such an adjectival form, but rather a pronoun. It should be replaced by “his,” which, as a possessive pronoun, is an adjectival form. Actually, if you think about it, “him staying” is a double error – if “staying” were actually a verb, then using the accusative form “him” instead of the nominative “he,” would be a second error.

I think I have this point right, but you never know, since I am simply an obscure retired pediatrician from Berkeley, although I did have several excellent English grammar classes in 8th and 9th grades, and took Latin for four years.

This observation is not to pick on you, I should add. In fact, lack of respect for the gerund is a national problem, not to say a disgrace. It is most jarring on my ears and in my brain when I listen to the otherwise excellent Rachel Maddow (a product of nearby Castro Valley and Stanford, to maintain the local angle), who butchers the gerund every night in what appears to me to be virtually every other sentence, but then as I have confessed, this is my mania and thus exaggeration is to be expected.

In fact, Rachel is far from the only violator or violatresse of the gerund. It is rare to find the gerund receiving the respect it is due, either on air or in print. What I am asking of you, then, in requesting that you clean up your language act in regards to the gerund, might be asking you to put your finger in the dike of the pressure and onslaught that has changed so many rules of English by common misuse. That would be unfair if I thought anyone would notice and that you might therefore receive criticism for acting superior and elite. But of course no one would notice. And in fact, in asking you to leap to the defense of the gerund, I could well imagine that Haywood Hale Broun and A. J. Liebling and Roger Angell might well be moved to do the same, so your moving to join that imagined company somehow does not appear to be too much to ask.

Yours in respect for both sports and language,

Budd Shenkin

It pains me to report that I have had no response.

The world goes on, language changes, problems are solved by some of the language adjustments, as when “they” is substituted for “him” or “her” or “him or her” following a singular “someone,” for instance – this change is grammatically incorrect but serves a greater purpose of gender equality. Alas, sadly, I'm afraid that the increasing tide of disrespect for the gerund serves no greater purpose, and even when I turn to that bastion of fine writing, the sports section, my poor foible can find no relief, no dawning of recognition, no inkling of correction and improvement, no sense of impending justice.

In time, all language simplifies, inflections disappear. Students of Latin realize how lucky we English speakers are that we don't have to match so many cases and declensions and conjugations as the ancient fellows (and gals) did. It's hard to think that anything significant has been lost.

But however small the case of the gerund may be, let it be known, there are those of us who love it, and will mourn its passing.

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but “passing” is a gerund, and proper respect is given to it by utilization of the possessive “its.”)

Budd Shenkin

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for jumpstarting an old memory. I used to get excited when my sexy high school English teacher would say, "Gerundial phrase." Something about the way her lipstick shimmered as the words rolled of her tongue. Ahh...those were the days.