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It’s comedy grammar time, and this week we’re talking about gerund phrases.
What’s a gerund and why should I care?
In keeping with my philosophy of not making you memorize big words and complicated concepts, I’ll cut right to the chase:
A gerund is a verb with an “ing” on it that functions as a noun.
The trouble comes when there is a noun or pronoun before the gerund: do you make that word possessive or not? Very often, it depends on what you are trying to get across.
Here are some examples of sentences containing gerunds.
- Brian/Brian’s going to Vegas was a disaster.
- The woman/woman’s slugging her attacker was awesome to watch.
- The astronaut/astronaut’s walking in space changed the world forever.
- I am worried about my son/son’s riding a motorcycle.
- With my son/son’s being in the hospital (as a result of a motorcycle accident), I cannot make it to the wedding.
Which of these sentences need the possessive case?
I’m glad you asked, because I have an easy hack to help you:
If the noun is the main idea of the sentence, keep it a regular (common) noun. If the gerund clause is the main idea of the sentence, make the noun possessive.
Let’s take the examples above and apply them to our hack. I’ve put the gerund clauses in red.
- Brian/Brian’s going to Vegas was a disaster. Was Brian a disaster or was going to Vegas a disaster? Going to Vegas was, and therefore you would use “Brian’s” and not “Brian.”
- The woman/woman’s slugging her attacker was awesome to watch. What’s awesome to watch – the slugging or the woman? We feminists definitely want to watch the slugging, so we use the possessive case. You
creepyaverage men, however, want to watch the woman, don’t you? So go ahead and watch the woman without being possessive of her.
- The astronaut/astronaut’s walking in space changed the world forever. If walking in space changed the world forever, use “astronaut’s”; if the astronaut herself changed the world forever, use “astronaut.”
- I’m worried about my son/son’s riding a motorcycle. I don’t know about you, but I’m worried about my son no matter what he does. That’s why I would use “son.” However, for those of you who are totally chill about your son, except when he rides a motorcycle, you would use the possessive case.
- With my son/son’s being in the hospital (as a result of a motorcycle accident), I cannot make it to the wedding. Because the situation of being in the hospital is the reason I can’t make it to the wedding, I’d say “son’s” here.
A trio of exceptions
I don’t subscribe to that old bromide that “the exception proves the rule.” My motto is “the exception screws up the rule.” But as I made neither the rules nor the exceptions, here are three of the latter to keep in mind when you’re pondering what to do with your gerunds.
- If the noun preceding the gerund is collective, abstract, or plural, don’t use possessive case.
- The team working on the project together was a beautiful sight to behold. We’re going to assume that the working together is a beautiful sight, not the team itself. Normally this would make the noun possessive, but “team” is a collective noun so therefore keep it common.
- I’m worried about it coming back to haunt me. Here you’re worried about the possibility of being haunted, right? You can’t be worried about “it,” whatever it is, because “it” has already happened. However, “it” is too abstract to deserve the possessive case – which, I might add, would be “its” and not “it’s”; see this article for more information on plurals and possessive case.
- The prisoners making the rules in jail is not a good idea. The bad idea here is the making of the rules, not the prisoners. Still, use the common noun because it happens to be plural.
- Nouns being in the plural trumps the possessive gerund rule. By the way, if “nouns” were the main idea, the verb would be “trump.”
- If the noun preceding the gerund is itself preceded by other nouns, or is itself made up of many words, use the common noun.
- I was pleasantly surprised by Samantha, my neighbor, agreeing to go out with me. In this case “my neighbor” was preceded by “Samantha,” and therefore you would not tack an apostrophe-s onto “neighbor.”
- I was pleasantly surprised by the girl next door agreeing to go to the prom with me. “The girl next door” is too busy a concept to warrant the possessive case, and besides, who would want to go to the prom with a door?
- Pronouns preceding a gerund should be possessive, except when they shouldn’t.
You can always cop out and rewrite
If you are unsure of how to structure your gerund clause you can rewrite it so it will not contain a gerund. Here are some sentences from above that I have reworked:
- Because my son is in the hospital, I cannot make it to the wedding.
- It is not a good idea to allow the prisoners to make the rules in jail.
- A plural noun trumps the possessive gerund rule.
- I was pleasantly surprised that Samantha, my neighbor, agreed to go to the prom with me.
All of us have writing goals, be they in content marketing, fiction, or just plain email correspondence, and having that extra bit of grammar knowledge can help you reach them. Being able to handle complex diction and sentence structure will alert editors, agents, and other gatekeepers that you’re above the crowd of average writers they hear from every day. By nailing the gerund mystique you will be well on your way toward writing success.