Possessiveness That Works
by Cherie Tucker
Anyone who was taught by the nuns knew that “you always use the possessive with a gerund,” the -ing form of a verb used as a noun. And for those of you still scratching your head, the underlined words here are gerunds:
Seeing is believing.
Dieting wasn’t easy this time.
It was hard for her to quit smoking.
Gerunds are names of things, even though they look like verbs, which are actions (write, publish, retire).
The following sentences with gerunds illustrate why the nuns were so adamant about using possessives with them.
The manager threw the team a party because of them breaking a two-week losing streak.
The manager threw the team a party because of their breaking a two-week losing streak.
The party wasn’t because of them, as the first sentence implies; it was because of their breaking the losing streak. No one can misread the second sentence, even if there were to be a line break right after the pronoun “their.” If there had been a line break, “their” would have set up the reader’s expectation that another word would follow:
The manager threw the team a party because of their
breaking a two-week losing streak.
The possessive pronouns—my, his, her, our, their—work for you to direct the reader to the next word, which is essential in the event of a line break.
He was fired because of his (not him)
being late so often.
They were worried about my (not me)
passing the final this time.
Naturally the same rule applies to the possessives created by adding an apostrophe and an “s” to nouns.
They were terrified of Bob’s (not Bob)
They waited forever to hear the child’s (not child)
In both instances readers will wait to see what his or my or Bob’s refers to. No one will have to adjust from thinking that “They worried about me” or “They were terrified of Bob.” As with using correct punctuation, using the possessives with the gerunds will allow you to ensure that readers take in your words as you intended, not as they thought you said. Sister Mary Margaret knew what she was talking about. Make sure you do.
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. GrammarWorks@msn.com.