The Empire of Grammar


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Joy and peace, Camper, and welcome to Your Uncle Jerry’s Grammar Grotto.
Lately, it has come to Uncle Jerry’s attention that more and more young persons lie awake at night fretting over fine points of English grammar, stylistics, and semantics.
Listening to NPR, for example, they ask, “Shouldn’t Scott Simon have said ‘this raises the question’ instead of ‘this begs the question’? I mean, ‘begging a question’ refers to the fallacy of petitio principii, doesn’t it, Uncle Jerry?”
So true, but as professors here in the humanities building have always told us, you really can’t get to Journalism from English; you have to go through Marketing.
Or, buying their ramen and caffeinated sugar-drinks at the grocery express line, young readers say to each other, “I’m sure that sign should be ‘15 items or fewer’ instead of less.”
Well-spotted, Camper. But in this case, the more serious crime against language is the use of the word express.
Grammar is complicated. (No one knew how complicated.) So it’s no wonder that campers have questions. Recently, Your Uncle Jerry heard from a young person with the following grammatico-theological question. “Dear Uncle Jerry: In the participle phrase, his destroying the temple, what case should the pronoun take—genitive or nominative?”
As with so many questions of language, much depends on the context. First of all, as I sense you have already noticed, we need to know whether it is Titus or Tiglath-Pileser III destroying the temple. Second, when parsing scriptural texts, we should keep in mind that these are often written in an obscure tense called the Perfect Preposterous or sometimes the Compound Hagiographic. Pay attention, Camper; this may be on the quiz.
What comes before or after the phrase in question is also important. “What’s that noise? Oh, that’s him destroying the temple,” would yield a different answer from, “His destroying the temple was a clear case of government over-reach.” And in either phrase, we still don’t know whether the temple was being used for lawful worship of the emperor or for basement meetings of an MLA Citation Suicide cell.
Be that as it may. If the writer wants the possessive, then we’ve got the following problem. In formal language, a possessive must point to, as the kids say, “a real thing.” A nominative. So if there’s a genitive (as in HIS), then the –ING form is a gerund and not a participle. OK? A gerund sounds like an article of clothing (gerundies), but it functions grammatically more as a noun. We can clarify things by substituting an equivalent noun—say, “destruction” in this case.
To wit: “His destruction the temple.”
That don’t work—it needs a preposition: “His destruction OF the temple.” Or IN the temple or AROUND, etc. (Why? Because emperors, like all partisan politicians, destroy pretty much everything.) So then we substitute “destroying” back in with the preposition, and we get “His destroying OF the temple came on the equinox this year.”
This is now correct grammatically. But theologically . . . eww. The equinox is no time for destruction.
On the other hand, if the writer means “destroying” as a participle, then you’ve got a verbal form, and you need to change the genitive pronoun HIS to a dative: HIM. For the dative case, it helps to think of the last person you actually dated. Because as you discovered, you can’t possess either a verb or a flake, and that romance was not a real thing.
Hence, we now have: “Did you hear something? Yep. It’s Wednesday, so that’s him destroying the temple.”
That works. With the dative, the case of romance, destruction suddenly makes more sense, MLA is crushed, and grammatical balance is restored to the empire.
Peace and Joy.