To Say or To Imply?

Which of these two sentences is grammatically correct: Him being new to our program, we require a short interview and assessment, or He being new to our program, we require a short interview and assessment? The only difference between the two is the first word, and a little grammar can help us sort out the choices and make a confident decision.

First, as always, we size up the phrases and clauses to determine the lay of the grammatical land. The sentence opens with a six-word phrase and concludes with an independent clause. In essence we have, then, a simple sentence whose subject, we, is connected to the finite verb require. As we’ve noted in an earlier post (Verbs and the Verb), this concept of a finite verb is all important and is often not made enough of in grammatical study. The term finite refers to the form of a verb that is specific as to subject and tense. A finite verb makes a distinct assertion, as opposed to forms like infinitives, gerunds, and participles which at first sight appear to be verbs, but are really what are called non-finite constructions, not assertions but implications. Finite verbs say, declare, predicate; non-finites mention, allude, intimate. Finite verbs make up clauses, non-finites make up phrases. So when we’re analyzing a sentence for its grammatical shape (simple, compound, or complex), we begin by counting clauses, which means we begin by looking for finite verbs.

Now if require is the one and only finite verb in our sentence, what, then, is being, which sounds a lot like a verb? Being is a participle, one of the non-finite constructions we just mentioned, and we know this because it is modifying the pronoun him; participles are adjectives and must work with nouns or pronouns. The opening six words of the statement, then, make up a participial phrase, not a clause. In the form of a non-finite construction, they are suggesting or mentioning the circumstances in which the action of the main verb, the finite verb require, is taking place. That introductory adverbial phrase—the phrase in its entirety, from him to program—comprises an adverb and sets the stage for the subject we to require a short interview.

And with that, we come close to solving our question whether him being or he being is grammatically correct. When a participle has a subject of its own, as here the participle being has the pronoun him or he, the two together form what is called a nominative absolute phrase, which means the phrase sits grammatically apart, or absolutely, from the main clause, and its own subject takes the form which subjects usually take, the nominative. The nominative case of the pronoun is he, and so he being is the correct choice: He being new to our program, we require a short interview and assessment. Absolutely so.

The nominative absolute phrase makes use of a participle to do what all non-finite constructions do by definition: twist a verb just a little so that it acts like an adjective or noun or adverb. If that participle being is an adjective because it modifies the pronoun he, the same verb from which it came, be, can also be turned into a noun as a gerund (there might be strange, fantastic beings on other planets), or into an adverb as an infinitive (he studied the stock market to be rich). But even though non-finites derive from verbs, they don’t assert anything directly—that is the work of a finite verb. Non-finites, nonetheless, carry a sense of movement or change, and that can remind us, if we’re reading and writing closely, that the more things change, the more they stay the same—only to change again.


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