The Genial Gerund

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If you have any lingering doubt that I’m a stick in the mud, crusty curmudgeon, or proud member of the oft-maligned Grammar Police, wonder no more—this column will confirm your worst fears!

This month I turn my attention to one of the many disappearing subtleties of English grammar—like irregular past participles (such as lit or drove), the endangered semicolon, or the vanishing subjunctive (watch for a future column)—that used to make our language elegant and graceful, but are more and more often dismissed by most mainstream writers as useless or old fashioned. This month I am celebrating the use of the possessive before a gerund. 

A what? You may ask. The gerund—from Latin for ‘to do’—is simply a verbal noun, that is, the –ing form of a verb functioning as a noun in a sentence. The twinkling of the lightning bugs is a welcome harbinger of summer, and eating ice cream makes the heat easier to bear. In these examples, the gerund is used as the subject of the sentence, followed by a verb: twinkling is, and eating makes. A gerund can also be used as the object: I love hiking, or, many people still enjoy lying in the sun. Other –ing verb forms might be used as participles that modify nouns, as in “if you have any lingering doubt….,” or in the present progressive tense, as in “we are leaving for the beach tomorrow” (lucky us!). But these –ing forms still function in the sentence as verbs; the gerund is the only verb form that functions as a noun. Tubing on the James was discouraged last weekend due to high water, or, travelling is one of the joys of retirement.

Now as we all know, when we modify a noun to indicate that it belongs to someone or something, we use the possessive form of the modifier: my swimming pool, the children’s playhouse, Jane’s canoe. Putting these two concepts together—verbal noun + possessive modifier— we must prefer “Are you okay with my dripping ice cream on your porch?” over “Are you okay with me dripping ice cream on your porch?” Yes, I’m okay with you, but No, I’m not okay with your dripping on the porch. The first version softens the sticky blow so much more gently! Isn’t “I appreciate his gardening the property” preferable to “I appreciate him gardening the property”? Yet in fact, the latter is what we hear all the time! When we modify a gerund—simply another kind of noun—as belonging to (or in the case of an action, committed by) someone or something, we must modify it with the possessive form, just as we do with other nouns, like his garden or their ice cream. But this rule is followed less and less often these days; it has become commonplace to use the objective pronoun instead. 

The confusion usually comes when the modified gerund takes the role of an object within the sentence. Although it might be correct to say “I appreciate him,” in the example above it is the gardening that we appreciate, not the person doing the gardening. This confusion can even lead to mistaken meaning. “He did not like the woman standing in front of him at the parade” implies that he did not like the woman herself; whereas the correct expression, “He did not like the woman’s standing in front of him at the parade” correctly conveys that it was her standing there that annoyed him, while he bore no animosity toward the woman herself (whom he probably didn’t even know) (getitwriteonline.com). “I envy you lying by the pool all day” suggests envy of the person, and is less precise than “I envy your lying by the pool all day,” which more accurately conveys envy of the action described by the gerund. As Grammar Girl explains, “Differentiation is key. Are you appreciating or abhorring the person, or the deed? Almost invariably in this construction, it’s the deed. So, let the person own the deed” (www.quickanddirtytips.com).

So instead of the graceful “Aren’t you impressed by our swimming?” most writers these days ask “Aren’t you impressed by us swimming?” The latter is clunky, ugly, and makes less sense. “I will pay for their buying sunscreen” is clearer and less awkward than “I will pay for them buying sunscreen.” “We should probably stay away from downtown,” a friend commented recently, “with it being graduation weekend.” The correct phrasing would be “with its being graduation weekend.” Get it? Another friend posted on Facebook recently, “Some of you may recall me giving away a bunch of baby spider plants.” But it wasn’t her we recalled; it was her offer to give away free plants, more clearly conveyed with “Some of you may recall my giving away a bunch of baby spider plants.” 

Quiz time! Which is correct? a) The children laughing at play always cheers me up or b) The children’s laughing at play always cheers me up? a) The ocean waves crashing on the beach soothe away my stress, or b) The ocean waves’ crashing on the beach soothes away my stress? If you answered b) in both examples, by George, you’ve got it!

Clearly, the title Richard Powers gave his 2004 novel The Time of Our Singing sounds so much better than the alternative, The Time of Us Singing. And now you know why! To me, the choice is less a matter of right and wrong, and more a matter of elegance and grace. As you can see from these many real-world examples, this error is rampant, and now that you are aware of it, you may notice that it’s getting worse all the time (that was the present progressive tense, not a gerund ;-). My writing about it (there’s the gerund!) actually feels a little like screaming into the wind. But hope springs eternal! If those of us who understand this distinction remain steadfast, maybe we can at least preserve some eloquence in our beautiful language.  

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