July 29, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: while or whereas & you or your asking; gerunds and possessives

Posted in gerunds and possessives, while/whereas, you or your asking at 8:56 am by dlseltzer

Sighting or rather, Sounding:

I was listening to NPR’s comedy news show, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, on Saturday, and I heard this, which I could not resist sharing with you.

They were talking about Sarah Palin and her made up word, ‘refudiate,’ and commented:

She won’t use a thesaurus, she says, ” Everybody knows they’re extinct.”

Tip 1: while or whereas

A reader writes:

A WLUT request: ‘while vs. whereas’

I just got proofs back for a paper that has had essentially every instance in which I used ‘while’ changed to ‘whereas’ (which I think sounds ridiculous and as if I was submitting the declaration of independence). Thoughts and guidance would be welcome!?!

This was my response:

I agree with you completely. ‘While’ or ‘although’ are the stronger words. ‘Whereas’ is stuffy and old-fashioned.

But when I started investigating, I found the issue to be more complex. According to a NASA site:

The use of ‘while’ to show contrast is common and accepted in informal usage. In formal writing, however, ‘while’ should be reserved to show that two or more events occur at the same time. For comparisons and contrasts, ‘whereas’ and ‘although’ should be used instead of ‘while.’

Measurements were taken while the specimen was rotating in the rig.

Although positions are logged manually, temperatures and pressures are recorded automatically by the thin-film sensors.

This makes me think that the reader’s editor is an old school grammarian and is a bit rigid in his or her thinking.

I stick with my original statement. Fortunately, I have found a lot of support. Garner (2009) leans toward ‘while’ unless the sentence ambiguously suggests a time element. That seems reasonable, although in those cases, I would probably use ‘although’ rather than ‘whereas.’

Another view suggests this:

The Rule: ‘While’ can be used to mean ‘during the time that,’ and it can be used to mean ‘whereas.’

In the former case, while is not preceded by a comma.

In the latter case, while must be preceded by a comma.

I can’t study while my little brother is beating on his drum.

The Blue Ridge mountains are beautiful, while the Rockies are grand.

When I look at examples, that seems to be true, but I think I would consider it a ‘convention’ rather than a ‘rule.’

The BBC concurs with my view:

Note that while does not always refer to time. It is also used to balance two ideas that contrast with, but do not contradict, each other. In this sense, it is similar to whereas.

While I like all types of fish, my girlfriend always chooses meat dishes when we go out to eat.

Fowler is also in agreement, noting that:

The proper use of ‘while’ as a strong conjunction may be either temporal (during the time that) or non-temporal (whereas or though).

My only hesitation about Fowler’s statement is that in our formal writing, I would stick with ‘although’ and keep ‘though’ for more casual writing or conversation.

At any rate, I feel comfortable with my original premise, that ‘although’ and ‘while’ are perfectly reasonable substitutes for ‘whereas’ and, moreover, actually constitute an improvement over the stodgy ‘whereas.’

Tip 2: I appreciate you or your asking; gerunds and possessives

Earlier this week, I was thanking someone for reviewing something for me, and I wrote this:

As I said, no urgency, but I appreciate your looking at it.

And then I wondered, is ‘your’ correct there, or should I have written ‘you’ like this:

As I said, no urgency, but I appreciate you looking at it.

And thus, I found a topic for Tip 2.

For me, the problem is that I depend upon my ear when I am creating sentences, and, to my ear, they both sound okay. So this called for a bit of investigation.

While I usually try to avoid it, I feel that I have to get into the grammar a bit. ‘Looking,’ in my example, above, is a gerund. What is a gerund? A gerund is the ‘ing’ form of a verb that acts as a noun.

As a noun, it can function as a subject or an object.

I love fishing. Here, it functions as the object of the sentence.

Fishing is my favorite activity. Here, it functions as the subject.

[NOTE: If it functions as an adjective, the ‘ing’ form is called a participle. This is a very boring talk.]

A noun or a pronoun immediately preceding a gerund should be in the possessive case-usually.

And this is why I love language so much-‘usually’ plays such a prominent role!

Let me explain. A noun or pronoun immediately preceding a gerund should be in the possessive case. The easiest way to check this is to try and substitute another noun for the gerund.

In my initial example, ‘looking’ is the gerund, and ‘looking at it’ is the gerund phrase. We can substitute the noun, ‘examination’ or the noun, ‘review’ for the gerund phrase.

As I said, no urgency, but I appreciate you examination.

As I said, no urgency, but I appreciate you review.

We quickly see that the objective or plain noun form (in this case, ‘you’) doesn’t work. Since we have a noun modifying another noun, we need the possessive form, ‘your.’

As I said, no urgency, but I appreciate your examination.

As I said, no urgency, but I appreciate your review.

Ah, much better. It works the same with gerunds, so the correct phrasing is:

As I said, no urgency, but I appreciate your looking at it.

But hold on, not so fast-there are lots of exceptions.

When the noun preceding the gerund is modified by other words, use the objective or plain form of that noun, not the possessive.

I was excited about your getting an R01 grant award for the first time.

but

I was excited about you, a relatively junior investigator, getting an R01 grant award for the first time.

When the noun preceding the gerund is plural, collective, or abstract, use the objective or plain form of that noun, not the possessive.

I was impressed by the writing group members writing as much as they did.

The class working collaboratively was a terrific idea.

It was a case of wisdom and maturity beating out youth and inexperience.

If there are multiple nouns preceding the gerund, use the objective or plain form of the noun not the possessive.

I worry that Tom, Dick, and Harry arguing is going to upset the rest of the class.

Less awkward than:

I worry that Tom’s, Dick’s, and Harry’s arguing is going to upset the rest of the class.

If the meaning is obscured by using the possessive, use the objective or plain form of the noun OR the possessive form of the noun whichever clarifies your intent.

I don’t like the man’s complaining about how difficult the work is.

In this sentence, I don’t like the complaining.

I don’t like the man complaining about how difficult the work is.

In this sentence, I don’t like the man who is complaining.

[NOTE: In this sentence, ‘complaining’ is actually acting as an adjective and is a participle. I don’t like which man? The man who is complaining.]

Is this confusing? Let me add another wrinkle. The rule about using the possessive case before a gerund should be followed in our formal writing, but it is much less an issue in informal work and conversation. (I think that’s why both sentences sounded okay to me, in conversation, we use both.) Still, following it on a regular basis will help you remember the rule, and you won’t make a mistake where it counts.

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