To Possess or Not to Possess

by Cherie Tucker

Can you see what’s wrong with this sentence:  They celebrated with expensive champagne because of the team winning the championship? If you went to parochial school and had the nuns, you know that you must always use the possessive with the gerund, but if you went to public school or were born after the Beatles’ 1968 hit, “Hey, Jude,” you may not even know what we’re talking about.

A gerund is the –ing form of a verb used as a noun, such as “Seeing is believing” or “Cheating could get you into trouble.”  When you use such a word, you must decide whether the noun or pronoun before the gerund owns that word.  Don’t go away; it will all be made clear.  Take these two examples:

I appreciate your singing at the wedding, even though you had a cold.

I appreciate you singing at the wedding, even though you have stage fright.

In the first example you appreciate the singing.  The person performed despite the cold that might have affected the quality of the performance.  In the second example, you appreciated the you, the person who hates to perform but did it anyway just for you.  If you’d had nuns or are pre-“Hey, Jude,” you may even have diagrammed a sentence or two.  In the first sentence the subject is I, the verb is appreciate, and the direct object (the word that receives the appreciation) is singing.  The word your merely shows whose singing it was. In the second example, the subject and verb are still I appreciate, but the direct object, the word that is appreciated, is you.  Therefore, in the first sentence above, the correct wording should be They celebrated with expensive champagne because of the team’s winning the championship.  (They are celebrating the winning, not just the team, and that apostrophe before the s indicates whose winning it was.)

Here’s another one:  We admired John’s working nights to put himself through school.  John is an amazing person, yes, but what we admired was John’s working, not just John.

I appreciate your trying to digest this rather complicated subject, especially if you went to public school post-“Hey, Jude."   It’s an important one that separates the writer from the scribbler, so do give it some thought.

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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