What’s the right prosody/pronunciation in “possessive + gerund” constructions?

From a previous post, I’ve seen that both (a) and (b) are acceptable, the difference lying in the register (formal vs colloquial) each sentence conveys.

(a) She resented him being invited to open the debate.

(b) She resented his being invited to open the debate.

As a non-native English speaker, I find this sentence structure especially puzzling. Most of my concerns have already been answered in previous posts, except for the way this sentence should be pronounced. I have a vague feeling that him in (a) should sound stronger than his in (b), as if the stress of the dependent clause should fall on him in (a) and on being invited in (b).

…Or rather, as if there should be something like a short stop in the places indicated by the slashes:

(c) She resented / his being invited to open the debate.

(d) She resented him / being invited to open the debate.

To illustrate better what I mean, consider the following phrases:

(e) He’s counselling students.

(f) His counselling students.

Phoneme by phoneme, they should sound almost the same, but the prosody is certainly different. I feel that he’s should sound stronger than his, or that it should carry the sentence stress –if there is such thing– in (e), whereas students should carry the sentence stress in (f). So my questions are:

  • Are (a) and (b) pronounced the same, prosody-wise?
  • Should a (very) short stop be made in the places indicated with the slashes in (c) and (d)?
  • Is “him” in (a) comparable to “he’s” in (e), and “his” in (b) comparable to “his” in (f), prosody-wise?

Answer

[Note: Prosody and stress patterns vary between different forms of English, and this isn’t a subject I’ve read a lot about. So the below is about my native form of English, that of the Upper Midwestern U.S.]

Are (a) and (b) pronounced the same, prosody-wise?

Yes. Both (a) and (b) have two normal, unmarked options for the prosody:

  • primary stress on invited.
  • equal primary stresses on him/his and on invited.

There may be a small frequency difference: specifically, I would hazard that for (a), both options are about equally likely, whereas for (b), the first option is somewhat more likely; but I’m not sure.

For both (a) and (b), of course, it’s possible to strongly stress him/his to emphasize some sort of contrast. (In fact, it’s even possible — with enough context — to emphasize the being, if the implication is that she wanted him to make the invitation instead of receiving it.)

Should a (very) short stop be made in the places indicated with the slashes in (c) and (d)?

I really don’t think so, no.

Is “him” in (a) comparable to “he’s” in (e), and “his” in (b) comparable to “his” in (f), prosody-wise?

I don’t think there’s much difference, prosody-wise, between the he’s of (e) and the his of (f). Examples (e) and (f) have different prosody overall, because (e) stands alone whereas (f) does not; but in both cases, the stresses on counseling and students are much greater than that on he’s/his (unless the speaker is specifically emphasizing the he’s/his part).

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