Have you ever wanted to look up how to spell a word but couldn’t find it because you didn’t know how to spell it? That’s the same kind of problem many people have with this week’s topic: using possessives with gerunds. When you don’t know what to call the terms, how can you easily find guidance related to them?
Perhaps an example will help:
I appreciate YOU taking the time to read this.
I appreciate YOUR taking the time to read this.
Which is correct? Short answer: It depends. Read on to find out why.
The words above in green are gerunds — words with an “ing” ending that are formed from verbs but function as nouns. Think of them as being green with envy that verbs get all the action. Here are some more examples:
Trying to be something you’re not can only lead to trouble.
Dealing with gerunds and other grammatical terms can be traumatic.
Just because gerunds always end in “ing” doesn’t mean that all “ing” words are gerunds. They can also be adjectives (it’s a crying shame) or present progressive verbs (I’m getting a headache). But if the “ing” word is functioning as a noun in the sentence — and not as a modifier or verb — it’s a gerund.
Why Function Matters
What does it mean to “function as a noun”? On the most fundamental level, nouns can be the subject or direct or indirect object of a sentence, or the object of a preposition (they can do some other things too, but we won’t go into all that here). In the first example, taking is the direct object. In the two examples directly above, trying and dealing are functioning as subjects.
Why do these functions matter? Because they determine the rules that apply. The other determinant, as we often discuss, is context, and that plays a role here as well. Thus, in formal or “educated” English, the key rule is this:
Because gerunds function as other nouns do, any nouns that modify them should be in the possessive case.
This makes more sense if you think about a noun that’s not a gerund and a pronoun that modifies it, which often takes the possessive form. So, for example, we’d say “the boy’s dog,” not “the boy dog” (which has another meaning entirely). The same rule applies to the pronouns that modify gerunds:
Your [not: you] coming here today was not a good idea.
The teacher grew increasingly irritated with Robert’s [not: Robert] interrupting.
Exceptions and Workarounds
Despite it being proper grammar, using a possessive form before a gerund can sometimes sound or look odd, as here:
Safety guidelines are in place to mitigate the risk of a worker’s [not: worker] being injured.
Avoiding a penalty hinges on the company’s [not: company] paying its taxes on time.
In such cases, using a noun or pronoun that’s not in the possessive case before the gerund may be acceptable (sometimes called a “fused participle”).
Bryan Garner (A Dictionary of Modern American Usage) advocates the use of possessives before gerunds where doing so is possible without sounding awkward or pedantic. But he points out that fused participles such as the following are commonly accepted:
The likelihood of that [not: its] happening is nil.
He would not hear of Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds [not: Reynolds’] leaving the house.
The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition declares that the possessive form is “usually” optional when the noun or pronoun follows a preposition (as in all the examples above where the green gerund is not at the beginning of the sentence).
If you’re opposed to using fused participles, you can always rewrite the sentence to eliminate any awkwardness that comes with using the possessive:
Safety guidelines are in place to mitigate the risk of injury to workers.
The company can avoid a penalty by paying its taxes on time.
The Final Word
So what do you do in the face of such fluid advice?
- Use the possessive before a gerund at the start of a sentence.
- In formal documents or those intended for a more academic or professional audience, consider using the possessive form before gerunds where doing so won’t seem stilted.
- In more informal contexts, using a fused participle after a preposition may be the way to go to avoid constructions that look or sound odd.
- In all other instances, let your audience (and ear) guide you.