Using possessives with gerunds.
You wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) say, “That baby crying is getting on my nerves,” for although the baby may be irritating you, the real source of your nervous irritation is the crying itself and, therefore, the subject of the sentence.
Alternatively, you might say, “That crying baby is getting on my nerves,” and then the baby is the subject of the sentence, as well as the object of your disdain, but “crying” is no longer a gerund in that sentence, it's become an adjective. You can tell because you can't replace ”crying” with a noun anymore. You can't say “That dog baby is getting on my nerves.” At least you shouldn't say that. It would mean something strange and different.
Anyway, back to “the baby’s crying.” It’s the crying, again, that’s the noun and subject, so the modifier needs the proper structure—in this case, a possessive form: “baby’s.” Whose crying is depriving you of your nap on the plane? The baby’s crying, that’s whose.
Let’s take another example, because this is a tricky grammatical issue. That’s why it’s so common to hear it said the wrong way—to the point that the wrong way sounds right and the right way sounds wrong. Hold steady, and do it the right way. Be brave.
Let’s say a colleague has agreed to take your work shift so you can attend a family event out of town. How would you express your gratitude? (Of course, taking that person to lunch would be a gracious gesture, but how would you thank your colleague verbally?)
“I appreciate you filling in for me, Myrtle,” would be the common, though incorrect, way of acknowledging the kindness. Though you might appreciate Myrtle for filling in for you –— and you certainly could express it that way — you really appreciate the “filling in” itself. Therefore, because it’s Myrtle’s filling in that’s the object of the verb “appreciate,” you would say,
I appreciate your filling in for me, Myrtle.
Similarly, you might say,
I love that tenor’s singing.
Much clearer this time, because the object of your affection is the singing, not the tenor himself. Whose singing do you love? The tenor’s. Maybe you’ve met this fellow, and he’s an insufferable lout, but his mellifluous crooning makes you weak in the knees. “I can’t stand that tenor, but I adore his singing.” Starting to make a bit more sense now?
Remember that the “–ing” form is a noun.
A Quick and Dirty Tip
Some people find it hard to remember, so here’s the Quick and Dirty (and, we hope, simple) Tip to guide you.
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.
The baby’s crying; the tenor’s singing; Myrtle’s filling in.
Those in the know will notice our saying it and writing it correctly.
This article originally ran October 9, 2009.