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Do I Hate Your Singing or You Singing?

Using possessives with gerunds.

By
Rob Reinalda, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #192

Sometimes there’s a topic that doesn’t quite defy explanation but certainly gives one pause in the undertaking. Lucky us—that’s where we find ourselves today. “Why gerunds take a possessive before them.” Oy.

What's a Gerund?

Let’s start with what a gerund is. It’s a verb form that resembles an adjective or adverb but is actually a noun. It’s one of the “-ing” forms of a verb. In other words, it's a noun that's trying to trick you into thinking it's a verb. The other “-ing” forms are those that are part of a complex verb form (the present progressive), and those that are participles.

So a verb ending with “-ing” can be one of three things: part of the present progressive, a participle, or a sneaky, dirty gerund.

Present Progressive

First let's dispense with the present progressive “-ing” form of any verb. It's important to understand the verb forms so you don't confuse them with the gerund—the noun form. Here's an example using the present progressive:

Ignatz is mowing the lawn.

It denotes a current, ongoing process. The subject is “Ignatz.” the verb is “mowing,” and the direct object is “the lawn.” “Mowing” is a verb. Done.

Participles

A participle is what we call a verb such as “crying” when it is used as a modifier. It can be an adjective, as in,

The crying man’s co-workers comforted him with apples.

Here, the adjective “crying” modifies the noun “man”: “the crying man.”

A participle can also be used as an adverb, as in,

The man ran crying out of the cinema.

Here, “crying” modifies the verb “ran,” describing how he ran: “the man ran crying.”

Gerunds

Now that we have the verbs out of the way, let's move on to gerunds. Here's an example of a sentence with a gerund:

Crying can relieve stress.

Here, “crying” is the subject of the sentence. You can see that it's acting like a noun because you can replace it with something that is more obviously a noun: “dogs.” “Dogs are clearly nouns, and you could say, “Dogs can relieve stress.” See how you can replace “dogs” with “crying”? “Dogs can relieve stress,” and “Crying can relieve stress.” “Crying” is a gerund; a thing that looks like a verb but is acting like a noun.

Gerunds and Possessives

OK, so now you understand gerunds. Let's build on that knowledge and figure out how to deal with possessives before a gerund. People ask about this a lot.

Here's an example of a correct sentence:

That baby’s crying is getting on my nerves.

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.

Be sure to sign up for my free newsletter to get exclusive weekly tips and information. Questions for me, Grammar Girl, can be posted on Twitter or Facebook.

Ragan.com

This podcast was written by Rob Reinalda, executive editor for Ragan Communications (word_czar on Twitter), and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the forthcoming book The Grammar Devotional.

This article originally ran October 9, 2009.

Artist Woman Singing Concert in Jazz Club image, epSos.de at Flickr. CC BY 2.0

 

About the Author

Rob Reinalda, Writing for Grammar Girl

Rob Reinalda, winner of ACES' 2019 Robinson Prize for excellence in editing, is the founder and principal of Word Czar Media. He is the author of "Why Editors Drink."

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