Why is "his driving the car" wrong?



I don't approve of his driving of the car.

According to my text book, "his driving" cannot take the object "the car" directly, instead it needs "of" to put the object as in the sentence. Another example shown there is

The mere knowing of his name is a small thing. (Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet)

Again, it says "the mere knowing" cannot take the object "his name" directly. But, I don't understand why.


Posted 2015-11-14T12:14:45.333

Reputation: 1 179

1Gerunds are a mysterious bunch, aren't they? – Victor Bazarov – 2015-11-14T12:26:17.660

It seems that there is a difference between a sentence in which a gerund can take a direct object and a sentence in which a gerund cannot. If your textbook does not explain it, I'd venture a guess that you need to look at how the gerund is itself used (subject or object, etc.) – Victor Bazarov – 2015-11-14T12:29:25.513

6They're not gerunds. They're nouns derived from gerunds. How can we tell? Because they take of-phrases instead of direct objects, take determiners, take adjectival rather than adverbial modification, inflect like nouns, and so on. Driving can also be a gerund: "[Driving the car] was a pain." Now it's clearly a verb form. It takes a direct object, unlike the noun in your example. It doesn't need a determiner. It takes adverbial rather than adjectival modification. It doesn't inflect like a noun. And so on. – snailplane – 2015-11-14T12:33:02.567

11To this speaker of Northeastern US English, "his driving the car" means the fact that he is driving the car. "His driving of the car" means the way in which he drives the car. I don't know if this is formally correct, but it's the way in which we tend to use the phrases. – stangdon – 2015-11-14T13:30:44.050

@standgon: here, "driving" is the object of "approve of". How would you say that you do not approve of the fact that he is driving the car? – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-11-14T13:44:30.560

1@TRomano - To me, "I don't approve of his driving the car" means "I don't approve of the fact that he is driving the car." Like I said, it may not be formally correct, but it's idiomatic. – stangdon – 2015-11-14T20:11:18.460

@stangdon, I thought that "I don't approve of him driving the car" would be more in line with "I don't approve that he is driving". Or would it mean something completely different? – Victor Bazarov – 2015-11-14T20:42:15.967

1@VictorBazarov: "Him driving the car" and "his driving the car" are synonymous. – ruakh – 2015-11-15T02:33:36.923

What is the name of the book? – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-11-15T11:11:31.173

1@VictorBazarov They aren't both gerunds. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-11-15T13:39:55.717

@snailboat Indeed! (as I put in my answer ...) :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-11-15T13:57:48.437

@stangdon I think that's a plausible implication. But I think it's probably only implied. It's not part of the literal meaning. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-11-15T13:59:15.600

@VictorBazarov - I would say that "I don't approve of him driving the car" means essentially the same thing as "...of his driving the car." Again, this is just my native-speaker gut feeling - I'm not trying to offer a scientific explanation, just to go with "What would I think if somebody said X?" – stangdon – 2015-11-15T22:30:54.553

@Araucaria, Lectures on Modern English Grammar by Sadao Ando (p. 253). It is written in Japanese. – Aki – 2015-11-17T09:19:49.687



His driving the car isn't wrong. The book might be wrong. It depends on whether the book is talking about nouns in particular.

Gerund-participle clauses

We can use a gerund-participle clause in many of the same situations where we use noun phrases. We can use them as Subjects, Objects and as the Complements of prepositions. A gerund-participle clause is a clause which uses an -ing form of the verb with no (present or past tense) auxiliaries. The part in brackets below is a gerund-participle clause:

  • I don't like [Bob driving my Ferrari]

Gerund participle clauses can have either normal noun phrases, or genitive ones using 's or s' as Subject:

  • [Bob driving my Ferrari] was annoying.
  • [Bob's driving my Ferrari] was annoying

If the Subject of the gerund-participle clause is a pronoun, we can use an accusative one or a genitive one:

  • [him driving my Ferrari] was annoying.
  • [his driving my Ferrari] was annoying.

Notice that gerund-participles are verbs not nouns. Because of this, they take Direct Objects. We use adverbs and not adjectives to modify the -ing verb:

  • Him carefully driving my Ferrari round the race-course annoyed me.
  • His carefully driving my Ferrari round the race-course annoyed me.

In both sentences above we see the Direct Object my Ferrari and the adverb carefully. Notice that if we use the adjective careful to modify the verb the sentence will be ungrammatical:

  • *Him careful driving my Ferrari round the race-course annoyed me. (ungrammatical)
  • *His careful driving my Ferrari round the race-course annoyed me. (ungrammatical)


Many nouns in English describe actions:

  • inspection, theft, release, baptism, massacre, emission, liberation

Nouns do not take Direct Objects. If we want to show the people or things that these actions were done to, we need to use a preposition phrase using the preposition of:

  • the inspection of the school
  • the theft of the jewels
  • the release of the prisoners
  • the baptism of the congregation
  • the massacre of the Daleks
  • the emission of greenhouse gases
  • the liberation of the prisoners

If we want to modify nouns, we need to use adjectives, not adverbs:

  • the careless emission of greenhouse gasses
  • *the carelessly emission of greenhouse gasses (ungrammatical)

Noun phrases in English often have Determiners. These are words like a or the that do a special job in noun phrases. We can use genitive noun phrases using 's or s' as Determiners. We cannot use plain form ones:

  • Tom's theft of the jewels
  • Tom theft of the jewels (ungrammatical)

We can use genitive pronouns as Determiners. We cannot use accusative or nominative ones:

  • His theft of the jewels
  • *Him theft of the jewels
  • *He theft of the jewels

Of course we can always use determiners like the:

  • The theft of the jewels

Nouns ending in -ing

In English we can use different endings to turn verbs into nouns. For example we can add -(a)tion on to many verbs to make a new noun:

  • evaporate, evaporation
  • cite, citation
  • inspire, inspiration

We can also make new nouns from almost any verb by adding -ing to the plain form of the verb:

  • run, running
  • read, reading

These look exactly the same as gerund-participles, but they are not verbs. Like all nouns, they take preposition phrases with of instead of Objects:

  • The running of the race
  • The reading of the rules
  • *The running the race
  • *The reading the book

Like other nouns they can take genitive noun phrases and prepositions as Determiners. They cannot take normal nouns or accusative or nominative pronouns as Determiners:

  • Tom's running of the race
  • His running of the race
  • *Tom running of the race (wrong)
  • *The man running of the race (wrong)
  • *Him running of the race (wrong)
  • *He running of the race (wrong)

Of course, we can always use the as a Determiner:

  • The running of the race

Like other nouns, these nouns can be modified by adjectives. They can't be modified by adverbs:

  • His careful running of the race
  • *His carefully running of the race (wrong)

If we use these noun -ing forms as nouns, then they are nouns, not verbs!

The Original Poster's question

  1. I don't approve of his driving of the car.
  2. I don't approve of his driving the car.

The first sentence uses the noun driving. It has a preposition phrase to show what he was driving. The second sentence uses the gerund-participle form of the verb, driving. Because it's a verb it takes a Direct Object.

Notice that we can use the instead of his as a Determiner in (1). Also we cannot use the accusative him as a Determiner:

  • I don't approve of the driving of the car
  • *I don't approve of him driving of the car (wrong).

Notice that we can use him as a Subject in (2). Obviously we can never use the as the Subject of a verb;

  • I don't approve of him driving the car.
  • *I don't approve of the driving the car. (wrong)

Lastly, notice that we can use an adjective as a modifier in (1) because driving is a noun. We can't use an adverb. In (2) where driving is a gerund-participle verb, we can use an adverb as a modifier but not an adjective:

  • (1) I don't approve of his careless driving of the car. (noun with adjective)

  • (1) *I don't approve of his carelessly driving of the car. (noun with adverb, wrong)

  • (2) I don't approve of his carelessly driving the car. (verb with adverb)

  • (2) *I don't approve of his careless driving the car. (verb with adjective, wrong)

So, in the Original Poster's example, driving could be a verb or a noun. If it is a noun, it takes a preposition phrase, of the car. If it is a verb it can take a Direct Object, the car. If driving is a noun, the word his is a Determiner. If driving is a verb, we probably want to think of his as a Subject.

Hope this is helpful!

Reference Note:

All of this information can be found in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the famous reference grammar by Huddleston & Pullum (et al) 2002. You can also find most of it in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, Huddleston & Pullum, (2005)

Araucaria - Not here any more.

Posted 2015-11-14T12:14:45.333

Reputation: 25 536

1How do you know the text is wrong? It may be talking about one specific usage or constuction. – None – 2015-11-15T14:13:03.337

um, like, dude, what part of it prompted your comment? – None – 2015-11-15T16:39:20.190

@Araucaria- Brilliant! A stunningly good answer to the question! So what of the supposed "rule" that "a gerund requires a possessive pronoun?" (as I was taught decades ago). Too simplistic? Too inclusive? For instance, citing one of your examples from above, "[him driving my Ferrari] was annoying." I take it that that not only sounds fine to your ear but is also grammatically correct? I sincerely hope this old dog can still learn a few new tricks from you as an editor. Araucaria, thank you so much for this helpful, thorough and informative answer. You are a treasure here, my friend. – Mark Hubbard – 2015-12-08T15:26:25.080

A few moments after posting my comment, I thought of an example of what I think you are saying; e. g.,. "I caught him driving my Ferrari." Yes? – Mark Hubbard – 2015-12-08T15:44:08.310

@MarkHubbard You chose a very interesting example there. The grammar of verbs of perception (of which caught , strangely, is one) is very, very complicated. The reason why caught is one of those verbs is that it involves directly apprehending someone through ones physical senses. Re, your other question, yes, those sentences are grammatical. They aren't generally graceful though. In general, we shy away from using clauses (finite or non-finite) as Subjects. If we have to, it's probably safe to say that a genitive Subject within that clause is less awkward in any semi-formal situation ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-12-09T21:28:17.813

@MarkHubbard ... but maybe less so in an informal one. However, when those clauses are Object, or the Objects of prepositions, these clauses are much easier to process. Certainly, I think most people find an accusative as opposed to genitive more natural when that clause is the Complement of a preposition. "I'm worried about him having too much work to do" ir more natural than "I'm worried about his having to much work to do". But either way all of those examples we've just discussed are grammatical. We know that because proficient native speakers do that. ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-12-09T21:28:39.900

@MarkHubbard ... Whether it's always elegant' s another kettle of fish, of course! So, if your editing ear thinks it sounds bad, it probably is. But if it sounds natural, it probably isn't (bad). It'll still be grammatical though, even if it's not graceful. Re your perception verb caught, erm, the concensus, such that there is one, is that these verbs take an Object (him, in your example) and then another clause. The Subject of the other clause is determined by the Object of the main verb. So the structure is meant to be something like ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-12-09T21:28:57.680

... I caught [him] [him driving my Ferrari] where the second him doesn't actually appear in the words but is determined by the grammar. For this reason - it's argued - we can have passives like "[he] was caught [driving my Ferrari]" as opposed to "[His/him driving my Ferrari] was caught". It's still a not well understood area, though (at least it seems that way). – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-12-09T21:45:18.713

Sadly, CGEL is currently just over $255 at Amazon.com, and the damn thing is "perfect bound" like a paperback mystery one might pick up in an airport gift shop. Perhaps I'll spring for your other suggestion, "A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, Huddleston & Pullum, (2005)" instead. – Mark Hubbard – 2015-12-10T16:14:34.360

@MarkHubbard I'd definitely go with ASIEG first, otherwise it could be quite tough going. CaGEL is definitely an academic grammar. However, if there's specific stuff you want to look up, if you look at the link in this post here you'll find links to an electronic pdf of CaGEL. I'm a bit reticent about giving a link myself, because I'm not sure about whether "archive.org" is considered a reputable enterprise or not ...

– Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-12-10T16:32:25.680

@MarkHubbard CaGEL is 1,859 (small print) pages long, weighs 2.5 kilos and took fifteen collaborators fourteen years to write, so it's a lot of book and a lot of research and authorship too! That's why it's so expensive :( – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-12-10T16:35:11.057

@Araucaria- Thank you very much. This is an excerpt of a comment I just left on Amazon, "The fact that a $255 reference book is "perfect bound" is a crime of publishing. If you have never been a bookseller, a proper binding, especially of a book this size, is stitched and sewn. From Wikipedia: 'A hardcover... book... is stitched in the spine. Looking from the top of the spine, the book can be seen to consist of a number of signatures bound together.... Perfect binding is... cheaply made with each sheet fully cut and glued at the spine; these are likely to fall apart or lose sheets....'" Ugh. – Mark Hubbard – 2015-12-10T16:57:58.020

@Araucaria- If I thought even 20% of the retail price were given back to the authors, I would not complain. But my 13 years (in the distant past) as a bookseller and publishers' representative suggest otherwise. In almost every case, a $20 paperback becomes a $90 "textbook" once it is adopted for use in college and university courses. – Mark Hubbard – 2015-12-10T17:04:57.950

@MarkHubbard Yes, quite. Actually, I'd still complain! The authors were, after all, still being paid by their uni's when they wrote it. It's not worth it for a mere mortal, but probably is for a uni library. I used to be a bookseller myself for a few years. I picked up a £50ish copy for a friend from here. They don't have any at the mo, but it's worth keeping an eye out for. Having said that, it took me a lot of close reading of ASIEG to get to grips with the grammar. It's a really good book.

– Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-12-10T18:32:21.283

@MarkHubbard I wouldn't want to try to attack CaGEL without having done that first. And to be honest, ASIEG is better value. It gives you some very good nuts and bolts. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-12-10T18:34:01.250

@MarkHubbard "Don't have any at the mo" = don't have any for the cost of a limb ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-12-11T00:41:32.200

@Araucaria- ASIEG goes on my next Amazon order. Thank you! :-) – Mark Hubbard – 2015-12-11T04:43:34.017


"Him driving" focuses on that person, "his driving" focuses on how that person drives. For example: "I don't agree with John driving to the shop" vs "I don't agree with John's slow driving to the shop".

It should also be noted that "the mere knowing of his name" would be "merely knowing his name" in a more modern setting. BrE and AmE have moved on since Conan Doyle, though Victorian phrasing can be rather poetic


Posted 2015-11-14T12:14:45.333

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