Before we can use the possessive case before a gerund, we first have to recognize whether we are dealing with a gerund (which functions like a noun) or a participle (which functions as an adjective).
And therein lies the rub. Participles and gerunds look and sound the same.
Gerunds and participles (and infinitives) are verbals. (Here’s a link to a video lesson on verbals, which may be helpful as a starting point if that term is unfamiliar to you.)
Let’s See What You Already Know
Can you identify a problem in any of the following sentences?
- I appreciate you taking the time to read our year-end report.
- The revised plan would result in the family paying for services that previously would have been covered by the public insurance program.
- All child safety seats must be properly installed to reduce the risk of a child being injured.
In each of these sentences, we need the possessive case to modify a gerund. The correct phrases, then, are (1) “your taking,” (2) “family’s paying,” and (3) “child’s being.”
(If those three were easy for you, take a gander at the twenty-five at the very bottom of this article, beneath the “test yourself” section, for a greater challenge.)
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).]
Note: Below the “test yourself” is a set of additional sentences for discussion. In some cases, the distinction between participle and gerund is so minor as to be insignificant, but in other cases our failure to make that distinction leads to an illogical statement. For a deeper dive, keep reading below the test.
See if you can identify problems with gerunds in the following sentences:
- The tax-incentive program has resulted in South Carolina having seventy new businesses in the northern coastal area.
- 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.
- An emergency technician had recorded vital signs prior to the patient receiving medical care.
- The employee-of-the-month award is based on an employee having demonstrated a strong work ethic, collegiality, and dedication to the company.
- The board of directors realized that its actions were responsible for the company having lost $2.3 million in revenue during the fourth quarter.
- 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.]
- 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).]
- 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.]
- 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.]
- 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.]
A faithful subscriber sent the following twenty-five sentences culled from her reading and asked me to explain which of these sentences contain gerunds and, thus, need the possessive case. Here are the sentences, each followed by my response:
- For years after Tracy Kundinger was murdered, her three sisters lived in fear of the killer [the killer’s?] coming for them next.
Here’s how I would think this one through: were the sisters living in fear of the killer (in which case “coming for them next” is a participial phrase modifying killer) or were they living in fear of his (the killer’s) coming for them next? Both constructions make sense, so I would be hard pressed to say this one is wrong (though I’d personally treat it as a gerund because I would argue that they were more afraid of his coming for them than of him, per se).
- Harris also found there was no previous record of Pereira [Pereira’s?] hearing voices other than a brief mention from 2004.
This one is definitely a gerund and needs the possessive case. It is completely illogical to say “there was no previous record of Pereira.” The writer means to say that there “was no previous record of Pereira’s hearing voices.”
- The judge rejected an application by the Crown to use Pereira’s past criminal record as similar-fact evidence of violence toward women stemming from anger and jealousy. Only the first incident involved Pereira [Pereira’s?] being “spurned as a lover,” Harris found.
The distinction here is less clear: it is true that “only the first incident involved Pereira” and it is true that “only the first incident involved Pereira’s being spurned.” In such cases, the writer has to decide which is more accurately the point of this sentence. I would choose the possessive on the grounds that what matters most is that the case involved that person’s “being spurned.”
- Marjorie [Marjorie’s?] showing up late for meetings was nothing new.
We definitely need the possessive here. It makes no sense to say that “Marjorie was nothing new,” the construction we would have if we don’t make “showing” a gerund and, thus, the subject of the clause. Put another way, “showing up late” is the subject; it “was nothing new.”
- In a strange way, I guess the one good thing about your husband [your husband’s?] having a stroke during a pandemic is that it really distracts you from the fact your entire livelihood hangs in the balance.
We definitely need the possessive case here. It would be mean-spirited (and likely untrue) to say “the one good thing about your husband.” It’s the “having a stroke during a pandemic” that is the “one good thing.”
- I’ve made peace with my husband [my husband’s?] thinking I’m a terrible cook.
This one also needs the possessive. It may not be true at all that the speaker/writer has “made peace with [her] husband”; the point here is that the speaker has made peace with “his thinking.”
- In some cases, knowing at birth that an infant is homeless or precariously housed relies on a parent [a parent’s?] being willing to disclose the family’s housing status to health workers.
This one could go either way because “knowing” could be said logically to rely on both the parent and that parent’s willingness to disclose the housing status (or on either, depending on the context, which our writer should know).
- Women with bad experiences in shelters may not trust someone [someone’s?] simply telling them it was safe, she said, and the transition isn’t always easy.
Again, either way. I discern a very thin distinction between not trusting someone and not trusting that person’s telling. (Sidebar: The sentence really needs to be recast. The point is that women with bad experiences in shelters may not trust shelter workers’ assessment that their shelters are safe.)
- He neglected to follow his vehicle’s suggested maintenance schedule, which resulted in the car [the car’s?] breaking down frequently.
Definitely needs to be possessive: His neglect of the maintenance schedule did not result in the car. (Another sidebar: this sentence has a broad pronoun reference; the “which” has no noun or pronoun to point to. “His neglecting the vehicle’s scheduled maintenance schedule resulted in the car’s breaking down frequently.” There. Fixed it. 😊)
- Of all the unpleasant or horrific scenarios that swirled through my head concerning COVID-19, my dog [my dog’s?] dying wasn’t one of them.
This sentence definitely needs the possessive. It’s illogical to say that the dog itself was not a thought that swirled through the writer’s head; it was the dog’s dying that had not entered the person’s thoughts.
- In the six months before the homicide, symptoms of his psychosis increased—resulting in police [police’s?] charging him with mischief for falsely calling in a bomb threat.
This sentence needs a rewrite. “Resulting” is dangling. The preceding main clause contains no noun to which this phrase—whether gerund or participle—can refer. Logically, it modifies the noun increase, but that noun is nowhere in this sentence. Here is a possible rewrite: “In the six months before the homicide, an increase in his psychotic symptoms led the police to charge him with mischief for falsely calling in a bomb threat.”
- The government announced that new federal support for Canada’s pandemic-battered airline industry will be contingent on carriers [carriers’?] providing refunds to passengers whose flights were cancelled.
This one is not as clear-cut as many of these others, but I’d vote for gerund with the possessive because the “new federal support” is really not so much contingent on the carriers (they already exist) but on their providing.
- While the owner of Tim Hortons isn’t alone in this kind of corporate surveillance, the Tims app demonstrates how huge amounts of intimate data can be collected without users [users’?] realizing that it’s happening at all.
This one is definitely in need of the possessive case. It would be illogical to say “data can be collected without users” but logical to say “data can be collected without their realizing.”
- Despite numerous physicians [physicians’?] wanting to change her body for purely aesthetic reasons over the years, Jody had somehow managed to resist the temptation to undergo plastic surgery.
Again, this one needs the possessive case. Jody hasn’t managed to resist “despite numerous physicians” but “despite their wanting to change her body.”
- Tanner said the city hadn’t recently been enforcing the bylaw prohibiting tents in parks because it could lead to residents [read residents’?] scattering to other parks or even ravines.
And yet again, this one definitely needs the possessive. It would be illogical to say that enforcing the bylaw “could lead to residents.” Residents aren’t produced by the enforcement of the prohibition; rather, their scattering is a consequence of the enforcement.
- Dog owners can take precautions against pooches [pooches’?] contracting the virus.
It would be wholly illogical to say that dog owners are taking precaution against pooches, so once again we need the possessive. They are taking precautions against the dogs’s contracting, not against the dogs, themselves.
- I’m here to tell you that siblings [siblings’?] arguing about food is normal because siblings [siblings’?] arguing about everything is normal.
The verb “is” gives it away. If the subject is “siblings,” the verb should be “are.” But the subject is actually “arguing,” so the verb is “is.” Whose arguing? Siblings’ arguing.
- Passing vehicles honked in support of the teachers [the teachers’?] protesting unsafe working conditions. [Note: if the honking were in support of the teachers themselves rather than in support of their act of protesting, I assume the sentence would be correct as is—?]
The point made in square brackets is exactly right. The support is for both the teachers and their protesting, so really I couldn’t say one way is more right than the other in this case.
- Keeping the fee low will result in more patients [more patients’?] accepting treatment. [Note: I kind of think this sentence is correct as is because I imagine we could substitute more of them—rather than more of their—for more patients.]
Regarding the statement in square brackets: I hear what my reader is saying, but logically the sentence does not set out to say that the lower fee will result in more patients. Instead, the point is that it will result in more of them “accepting treatment.” Here is where sentence diagramming comes in handy. What is the object of the preposition “in”? I think it’s “accepting.”
- There still aren’t enough resources to treat inmates appropriately or humanely—resulting in them [their?] being placed in solitary confinement or similarly isolated conditions.
We definitely need the possessive here. The inhuman treatment does not result in more inmates but rather in “their being placed in solitary confinement . . . .”
- Data systems typically failed to capture underhoused babies’ existence, leading to them [their?] being left out of policy discussions.
Another that definitely needs the possessive case. The failure to capture the data didn’t lead to underhoused babies; it led to “their being left out of policy discussions.” (Another sidebar: the gerund phrase “being left out of policy discussions” is couched in a participial phrase “leading to their being left out of policy discussions.” But that participial phrase is dangling. It modifies the noun failure, but that noun appears nowhere in this sentence.)
- Bonnie talked Adam into both of them [their?] getting tattoos.
So much of this construction is colloquial, so this one’s tough. I think I’d leave “getting tattoos” as a participle modifying “them,” though I’m troubled by the logic: it’s not true that Bonnie talked Adam into both of them.” Can we just say “Bonnie convinced Adam to get a tattoo at the same time she did”? Or how about “Bonnie talked Adam and herself into getting tattoos”?
- Despite indoor dining [read indoor dining’s?] being shut down in many parts of Ontario for a month, COVID-19 cases have continued to rise.
Here we have an example of a truly awful sentence. It’s certainly not true to say “despite indoor dining.” But it sure is awkward to write the more logical “despite indoor dining’s being shut down.” How about “Despite the shutdown of indoor dining . . . .”
- She fears the province’s recent cuts to legal aid may result in more people with mental illnesses [??] ending up in prison because they don’t have an advocate to help them
Whew, awful sentence here. I see no way for it to be both logical and readable as is. It is wholly illogical to say that the cuts to legal aid “may result in more people.” How about “She fears the province’s recent cuts to legal aid may result in more prison sentences for mentally ill people who won’t have an advocate.” (Sidebar: the phrase “to help them” is redundant; that’s what an advocate is.)
- They sourced the pine from Michigan, despite every contractor they knew [??] warning them not to use softwood lumber for flooring in a commercial space.
Here we have the same problem we had in sentence 24. Let’s fix it: “ . . . despite warnings by every contractor they knew not to use softwood lumber . . .”
©2005 Get It Write. Revised 2021.