Using the Possessive Case before a Gerund

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  • Nancy Tuten

    3 July 2017

    Using the Possessive Case before a Gerund

    Can you identify a problem in any of the following sentences?

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to read our year-end report.
    2. The revised plan would result in the family paying for services that previously would have been covered by the public insurance program.
    3. All child safety seats must be properly installed to reduce the risk of a child being injured.

    In each of these sentences, we needed to have used the possessive case to modify a gerund.

    The correct phrases, then, are (1) “your taking,” (2) “family’s paying,” and (3) “child’s being.”


    What Is a Gerund?

    If we write “Surfing was dangerous during the storm,” the subject of the clause is surfing.

    “To surf” is a verb, but surfing is not the verb in this clause; instead, the verb is was.

    Surfing is a word derived from a verb but functioning as a noun; it’s a gerund.

    A gerund is one of three verbals: gerunds, participles, and infinitives. Verbals are words formed from verbs. They retain the characteristics of a verb; that is, they have tenses and complements and can be modified.  But they do not function as verbs in clauses.

    What Issues Do Gerunds Raise?

    Writers typically have two problems regarding the use of the possessive case with the gerund:

    First, failing to use the possessive case with a gerund can change the meaning of a sentence.

    Consider these two sentences:

    • Whitaker did not like the woman standing in front of him at the parade.
    • Whitaker did not like the woman’s standing in front of him at the parade.

    In the first sentence, standing is an adjective (a participle, to be specific, which is another kind of verbal) modifying woman. We call “standing in front of him at the parade” a participial phrase.

    The first sentence, then, says that Whitaker did not like the woman who was standing in front of him at the parade.

    The participial phrase answers the question “which woman?” It identifies her as “the standing woman” and states that she is the person whom Whitaker did not like.

    In the second sentence, standing is a noun—a gerund. This sentence says that Whitaker did not like the fact that someone (the woman) was standing in front of him at the parade.

    Whitaker probably did not know the woman at all. The notion of his liking or disliking her has nothing whatsoever to do with the idea that the sentence intends to convey. It was the “standing in front of him” that Whitaker did not like. Whose standing? The woman’s standing.

    The true meaning of the sentence—the fact that Whitaker did not like having someone stand in front of him at the parade—hinges entirely on the use of the possessive case of the word woman.

    Second, the failure to use the possessive case with the gerund can create an illogical statement.

    Consider the following sentence:

    • I appreciate you taking time to talk with me about the project.

    The possessive case of you is not used with the gerund taking, so the writer ends up making the illogical statement (at least in this context) “I appreciate you.” The point is not that the writer of the sentence appreciates you, per se; instead, the writer appreciates the fact that you took time to discuss the project:

    • I appreciate your taking time to talk with me about the project.

    Here are a few more examples:

    • Each office wants to arrange its own schedule, but doing so would result in the company’s being inundated with calls and scheduling requests. [This practice does not result in the company; it results in the inundation of the company (i.e., in its being inundated).]
    • The principal may require the parents to come to the school for a conference prior to the student’s being allowed to resume riding the bus. [The parents will not have to come to the school prior to the student; they will have to come before the student can be allowed to resume riding the bus (i.e., prior to the student’s being allowed to resume riding).]
    • What can we do about others’ not being able to read well? [The question is not what can we do about others but what can we do about the fact that they are not able to read well (i.e., about their not being able to read well).]
    • Funding eligibility is contingent upon the entity’s meeting the financial reporting requirements. [The eligibility is not contingent upon the entity but upon the fact that the entity meets the financial reporting requirements (i.e., upon its meeting the requirements).]

    TEST YOURSELF:

    See if you can identify problems with gerunds in the following sentences:

    1. The tax-incentive program has resulted in South Carolina having seventy new businesses in the northern coastal area.
    2. The principal will notify the parents that any disruptive conduct will result in a student losing his or her hall privileges for the remainder of the school year.
    3. An emergency technician had recorded vital signs prior to the patient receiving medical care.
    4. The employee-of-the-month award is based on an employee having demonstrated a strong work ethic, collegiality, and dedication to the company.
    5. The board of directors realized that its actions were responsible for the company having lost $2.3 million in revenue during the fourth quarter.

    ANSWERS

    1. The tax-incentive program has resulted in South Carolina’s having seventy new businesses in the northern coastal area. [The incentive program has not resulted in South Carolina; instead, it has resulted in the state’s having seventy new businesses in the northern coastal area.]
    2. The principal will notify the parents that any disruptive conduct will result in a student’s losing his or her hall privileges for the remainder of the school year. [The conduct will not result in the student; it will result in the loss of hall privileges by the student (i.e., in the student’s losing the privileges).]
    3. An emergency technician had recorded vital signs prior to the patient’s receiving medical care. [The technician did not record the vital signs prior to the patient; instead, he or she recorded vital signs prior to the receiving of the medical care.]
    4. The employee-of-the-month award is based on an employee’s having demonstrated a strong work ethic, collegiality, and dedication to the company. [The award is not based on the employee; instead, it is based on the employee’s having demonstrated certain qualities.]
    5. The board of directors realized that its actions were responsible for the company’s having lost $2.3 million in revenue during the fourth quarter. [The sentence means to convey that the board was responsible not for the company per se but for its having lost revenue.]

    ©2005 Get It Write. Revised 2019.

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