to listen to someone's private conversation without them/their knowing.

to listen to someone’s private conversation without them/their knowing.

My sense tells me that “them” is the right choice. (indeed, It’s how the dictionary defines the meaning of eavesdrop )

However, my friend asked me why “their” is wrong.
I am speechless .
Could you help me explain why them is the right answer while their is not ? thank you

I’ve heard both and would accept both as being correct, though as you say ‘them’ is the standard correct form used. ‘Them’ is the object pronoun with ‘someone’s conversation’.

Thanks Bee.

Could I describe as below:
‘to listen to someone’s private conversation without their knowledge.’?
Please comment.

That’s a better term to use with ‘their’ and to that end I have edited my message above.
Sorry for any confusion, Waiyin Cheng.

***** NOT A TEACHER *****

Hello, Mr. Cheng:

You have already received the answer. I just wanted to add some comments.

  1. If you ever have some extra time, check your books and the Web for something called “fused participles.”

  2. Your friend has an excellent point.

a. Even the experts do not agree.
b. There are many writers who would prefer “their.”

  1. Here are some comments from two of my books:

a. “I had a glimpse of him dodging this way and that.”
b. “I had a glimpse of his dodging this way and that.”

Two experts say: "Both are equally good. But the first emphasizes the person concerned; the second emphasizes the “dodging.”


c. “Now when [he] rides the bus to [school]. he doesn’t worry about the older kids soaking him with water guns.”
d. “Now when [he] rides the bus to [school], he doesn’t worry about the older kids’ soaking him with water guns.”

The expert says that “c” seems to be elliptical [short] for “the older kids who are soaking him”; “d” refers to “their soaking him” The expert says: " The question is what he’s not worrying about: the kids or the soaking."


  1. Regarding your sentence, perhaps now you can decide which word (“them” or “their”) is more appropriate.

  2. I shall keep my choice to myself.


I’d also prefer ‘their’, James. But I remember having read a view similar to what the two experts say. It’s logical and grammatical. It, however, depends on the context and the speaker’s choice.

As I indicated.

them knowing (object pronoun) - the focus is on the conversation.
their knowing (subject pronoun) - the focus is on the fact that they (don’t) know.

James, As usual, you gave excellent details for the learners to dig it deeper to the problems. I already checked it. Normally, native speakers use them interchangeably. In some cases, If we do not understand, It might end up like
“smelling their moms frying chicken.” - Focus on smelling mothers rather than the frying chicken itself :slight_smile:


Thanks for the good explanation of the kids and their soaking. It gave me clearer for the whole picture. Hope to see you much more in this forum to help the others like Bee and Anglophile

I’d like to thank Bee again. wherever the question are, you are there. You are incredible, you know you are, right ? :slight_smile:

Thanks to Anglophile, Cannadian45 for the information you added.

Hi Bev,

I don’t follow what you wrote here:

Surely in the first sentence the emphasis is on them as individuals not knowing and the second sentence stresses their lack of knowledge. And while I’m on about it, ‘their knowing’ has to be possessive adjective.