Possessives Before Gerunds

 

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Which one of these sentences are you most likely to say?

“I hope you don’t mind me borrowing your car.” Or

“I hope you don’t mind my borrowing your car.”

Notice that the only difference is me versus my.  My is the possessive form of the pronoun I or me. For example, “my book” and “my idea” are possessives. The book and the idea belong to me.

The second example is correct—the sentence that uses the possessive my. Why? Because you use a possessive before a gerund, and borrowing is a gerund.

Let me explain. A gerund is a word that used to be a verb (action) and is now being used as a noun, or thing. Nouns are used as subjects and objects in sentences. Gerunds end in -ing.

We are swimming in the pool. In this sentence, are swimming is the verb, or action. (By the way, the are helps determine the tense and is called a helping verb.)

Swimming  relaxes me. In this sentence, relaxes is the verb, or action word. Swimming is the subject of the sentence, or the thing performing the action (relaxes). You can tell swimming is a noun because you can substitute other nouns here and the sentence makes sense. For example: Chocolate relaxes me. In this sentence, chocolate is a noun and is the subject.

When you use a noun or pronoun before a gerund, that noun or pronoun should be possessive. Here are some examples:

Your swimming is really improving.

I enjoy your singing.(I is the subject, enjoy is the verb, and singing is the object and a gerund.)

I don’t like my son’s riding a bicycle without a helmet.

I am punishing you for your eating in the computer room.

OK. But now we hit a snag (of course). 

There are some other words that look like gerunds—in other words, they used to be verbs, are not being used as verbs, and end in -ing. But instead of functioning as nouns, they are functioning as adjectives (which describe nouns).  They are called participles. Here are some examples of participles:

I know the woman wearing the hat. (Wearing describes woman. Which woman? The one wearing a hat.)

I hear you singing in the shower. (Singing is an adjective describing you. I hear you. You are singing in the shower.)

There is a bunny hopping in the back yard. (Hopping describes bunny. Hopping bunny.)

See if you can tell which is a gerund and which is a participle:

I see the cat chasing its tail.

Chasing its tail is fun for the cat.

Chasing is a gerund (or noun) in the second sentence. It is the subject of the sentence and a noun. In the first sentence, chasing is a participle (or adjective) describing the cat.

RULE: Use the possessive before a gerund, but not a participle.

Examples:

I know the woman wearing a hat.  In this sentence, wearing describes the woman. It is the woman whom you know. Which woman? The one wearing a hat. The focus here is on the woman, the noun. Wearing the hat simply tells which woman.

I don’t like the woman’s wearing a hat inside the house. In this sentence, the focus is on the wearing. It is the wearing you don’t like. The wearing belongs to the woman. It’s not the woman you don’t like. Here, wearing is a noun, or gerund, and you use the possessive (woman’s).

Here are a few more examples to (hopefully) make this a little clearer.

I know his reading every night has helped him pass the test. (possessive and gerund – focus is on reading)

I see him reading in the library every evening. (reading, a participle, describes him – focus is on him)

I hope you don’t mind my staying with you next week. (possessive and gerund – focus on staying)

I hear you calling my name. (calling,  a participle, describes you – focus on you)

As you can see, there is sometimes a fine line between the two, so do the best you can!! And let me know if you have any questions, please!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Jim Armstrong says:

    Hi Arlene
    A piece in the 11/23/13 Santa Rosa Press Democrat gives me a chance to make another comment on this subject, plus another.
    My least favorite columnist, Charles Krauthammer, said “…constitutes the West legitimizing Iran’s status…”
    It should, of course, been “…the West’s legitimizing…” Hotshot Chuck’s usage is so plainly wrong, I loved to see it.
    My other gripe is that I managed to find a contact address for him a few years ago and was able to send him a note of correction and explanation of the rule.
    There is no current way to do this that I can find. This is true for many columnists including George Will, who also violates the rule on a regular basis.
    I feel especially strongly that such self-appointed gurus of thought be held accountable for what they write and their newpapers make possible a way to yell at them.
    Happy Thanksgiving

  2. Rosa Villalobos says:

    Thanks a million for clearing my doubts on this matter. I was having some hard time with my intermediate EFL students to understand it.

  3. Jim Armstrong says:

    I just read the article about you and this website in Sunday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
    I wanted to look it over, but my ulterior motive was to see if and how you dealt with using the possessive with a gerund.
    You do a good job on this confusing and fading usage.
    I have almost given up trying to educate people, especially writers, journalists and pundits, about how plainly good grammar calls for understanding it.
    I get indulgent smiles at best, most commonly rolled eyes and frequently bone-headed hostility.
    Is there a way, do you think, that the practice can be saved or will it simply die from lack or care?

    I am a third (at least) generation purist and I appreciate your efforts,

    • Thanks for the comments. I really appreciate your saying (how’s that) you thought I handled it well. I got a request for putting it in the blog; otherwise I may not have put that particular issue in. I know the indulgent smile well. I don’t know where it will all end! Other grammar issues are also going by the wayside….new motto seems to be “Too difficult for everyone to understand? Toss it out!”

  4. I hope you don’t mind my [see, I learned the proper use of a gerund from your blog post] saying that you are the very best Grammar Diva around!

  5. Your blog is helpful and unique. Thanks for making grammar popular and interesting…at least to this writer. It seems anyone can absorb such information in bite-size pieces. It’s a little easier than the Chicago Manual of Style! Now if only the art of cursive writing could be revived…

    • Jennie – I am glad you are finding it helpful! I can never find anything in the Chicago Manual! It realg doesn’t have grammar per se — which I discovered after never finding anything I was looking for. I am with you on cursive writing!

  6. Barbara Toboni says:

    Thanks, Arlene. Sometimes I like to make up new nouns, which could be gerunds in my poetry. Now I will know what I’m doing. I think I was absent in 7th grade on gerund day!

    • I’m not sure there is a gerund day in 7th grade! I touch upon them, but I don’t think I go near the possessives part of it! Maybe they do in another grade (we hope).

  7. I bought your book a year ago, however these emails are in short enough lessons to be very effective. I enjoy them and thank you for sending them.

    Craig

  8. Wonderful! This is something my father drummed into me, but in today’s more casual world, most people don’t bother or don’t know.
    Thank you! I LOVE your grammar blog.
    Skye

  9. Yay, I love gerunds and participles. They’re so handy sometimes. Thank you for addressing this topic. Seeing their use wrong in print makes me crazy. Do they even discuss gerunds and participles in high schools? Your explanation is very clear. As usual.

    • Oh, whew! I felt as if I were wallowing around in that blog post, so I am glad you think it is clear! I value your opinion on grammar because you are a grammar PRO! Someone asked me to address the topic. Was it you???? Ooh, maybe I should do subjunctive next time — another toughie I have to relearn! I tech participles and gerunds in 7th grade, but not using the possessive before them.

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