We always read the Crankshaft comic strip in our daily paper. Today, though, I read it twice. I had to go back because I realized, to my surprise, that today’s strip included a possessive with a gerund – a grammatical construction known only to editors and English teachers. More accurately, some editors and English teachers.
Here’s the sentence that startled me:
I wouldn’t worry about Pickles being out all night, Dad.
Turns out I was wrong. The sentence looked like a possessive-with-a-gerund because Pickles, the cat (not to be confused with the Pickles comic strip, also a favorite), ends with an “s.” The apostrophe was missing, however. (If it had been there, I would probably have fainted. As I said, few people know about this grammatical construction.)
What on earth am I talking about?
A gerund is a verb that’s been turned into a noun by adding an -ing ending. “Walk” is a noun. “Walking” is a gerund.
Here’s the sentence again, correctly punctuated:
I wouldn’t worry about Pickles’ being out all night, Dad. POSSESSIVE WITH A GERUND
In other words, the sentence is talking about the “being of Pickles.” Let’s try a few more of these:
We were excited about John’s being chosen for the All-Star Team. (the “being chosen of John”)
The news of Harriet’s getting elected surprised us. (the “getting elected of Harriet”)
Most people would simply say “John” or “Harriet,” without the apostrophe + s ending.
Why even bother with such an obscure grammatical construction? Instead of answering that question, I’m going to tell a true story.
One day I was part of a small group of people who toured an experimental farm. Our guide was M., a bilingual woman who had long been an activist and advocate for the local Hispanic community. She was plain-spoken, down-to-earth, and aghast when she learned that I was an English professor. She’d never attended college.
At the end of the day, when we said our good-byes, she apologized for the broken English that she had inflicted upon me all day.
I shook my head. “Your down-to-earth image is an act,” I told her. “I happen to know that you were educated in a private school.”
Her eyes blazed. “Who told you that? I never tell anyone that,” she declared.
“You did,” I replied.
I could see her searching her memory to see how she had revealed her secret to a stranger she’d met only a few hours earlier.
“It’s your sentence structure,” I said. “You put possessives with the gerund in your sentences. I was startled when I heard you do that the first time, and I thought it might have been an accident. But you’ve been doing it all day.”
And so the story came out. Her family had been large and poor. But a man at their church had noticed M’s vibrancy and intelligence when she was still a little girl, and he paid for her to attend a Catholic boarding school. The nuns had corrected her grammar morning, noon, and night. Thirty years later she was still using the grammar they’d taught her.
Her shoulders were a little straighter as she waved good-bye and walked to her car.
My shoulders were a little straighter too. The Grammar Expert had shown her stuff once again!