Grammar Minute: Gerunds and Possessives

I haven’t done one of my Grammar Minute posts in a while, or any other post, frankly, since I’ve taken a loooonnggg sabbatical from writing. However, in looking at my blog statistics, it turns out my grammar posts get the most consistent hits, next to people wanting a comprehensive list of the best writers in the English language.

This one, hopefully, will be short and understandable. It’s on the proper structure of a Gerund phrase. No, Gerund is not that high-top fade kid from Hey Arnold!

arnold_gerald_handshake
Arnold and his best friend, Gerund … er, Gerald.

 

First of all, exactly what is a gerund? A gerund is a noun made from a verb by adding “-ing.” The gerund form of the verb “read” is “reading.” Every gerund ends in “ing.” You’d think that would make them easy to spot, but not really. See, all present participles end in ing too. So, what’s the difference? A gerund is used as a noun and not a verb. You can use a gerund as the subject, the complement, or the object of a sentence.

For instance: “I am reading this sentence.” Here, reading is a verb, in the present participle form.

Contrast that with, “I am attending Bob’s reading of his poetry.” Here, reading acts as a noun, and is a gerund.

Here’s a tougher example. “Eating this pizza is awesome.” Here, the gerund is the verb eating, referring to the noun, pizza. However, the entire clause eating this pizza is used as a noun, the subject of the verb is.

I won’t go more into defining gerunds, as there are other sources you can look up. Instead, I want to focus on using gerunds with possessives, especially possessive pronouns. Given gerunds themselves serve as nouns, when preceded by a noun, which refers to or describes the gerund, the noun should be in the possessive form.

Huh?

Let me say it simpler. Gerunds are preceded by possessives.

For example: “Bob wants you to come see his reading of his poetry.”

In the first sentence, his refers to Bob’s reading. Contrast that with “Bob wants you to come see him reading his poetry.” Here, reading is a present participle, not a gerund, and the subject is him. Remember, in the first sentence, the subject is “his reading.” In the second, it’s “him.”

How about, “I can’t stand to see his going on and on about his girlfriend.” Again, the subject is “his going on and on,” which, if you think about it, is the thing that annoys the speaker. “I can’t stand to see him going on and on about his girlfriend” will sound correct in casual speech, but is grammatically wrong.

As writers, consider using the correct gerund form in formal language and saving the incorrect form for dialog. (Not many people know to use gerunds correctly.)

Here’s a great little closing example from Diana Hacker’s The Bedford Handbook.

In which sentence does the teacher dislike the child?

The teacher dislikes the child whispering to his classmate.

The teacher dislikes the child’s whispering to his classmate.

If you chose the first sentence, you are right. This sentence emphasizes the child, whereas the other one stresses the whispering. In the second sentence, the possessive form child’s signals that whispering is a gerund, a verb form used as a noun. The writer of this sentence is following a traditional grammar rule: For subjects of gerunds, use possessive nouns or pronouns.

You should be aware of gerunds, but not be rigid about their use. Some experts believe it’s going the way of whom, and has outlived its usefulness. In real life, there are time when the proper grammatical structure, using possessives, will sound awkward. In those instances, I advocate writing/stating what sounds best to your ears. As Maria (linguist that she is) always teaches me, language is dynamic and you, the user, get to determine the rules.

Oh well, not so short.

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