Tag Archives: Possessive with a gerundive

Possessive with a Gerundive

When I wrote about the “use a possessive with a gerundive” rule on July 29, I assumed it would be quite a while before I came across the rule in a real-world sentence.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find this example (people’s using) in a recent New Yorker article : “Huckabee wouldn’t mind being characterized as a Christian intellectual, but he is vigilant against people’s using his background as a pastor to characterize him as a ‘redneck from southwest Arkansas,’ as Nelson put it.” (“Prodigal Son” by Ariel Levy, 6/28/10; click here to read the article.)

Let’s all give author Ariel Levy a round of applause!

But I also have a bone to pick with him. Who was the “Nelson” who made that statement? I couldn’t remember and had to backtrack through the article to find the answer. It turns out that two pages (or 2,976 words) earlier, Rex Nelson was identified as Governor Mike Huckabee’s policy and communications director.

Bad writing. Your job as an author is to provide everything the reader needs to move smoothly through whatever you’ve written. There should be no backtracking and no interruptions to look up a word at www.Dictionary.com or to Google confusing information.

Postmodern theorists are correct when they say that reading is a collaborative effort between author and audience. But that doesn’t give authors permission to slack off. What it does mean is that authors constantly need to consider their readers’ experience, knowledge, and thinking processes. You can’t insult your readers (identifying Shakespeare as “a great Elizabethan playwright,” for example), but you also have to avoid obscurity and confusion (referring to “Bertie,” say, without explaining that his formal name was King George VI).

I began this column by harking back to one I’d previously written about the possessive-with-a-gerundive construction. Now I’m going to hark back to July 31, when I wrote about indefinite pronoun references. Did you find one in the previous paragraph? No? Here it is: But that doesn’t give authors permission to slack off.

“That” is indefinite because it doesn’t refer to anything specific in the previous sentence. If someone pinned me against a wall and insisted on knowing what “that” stood for, my answer would be “The fact that reading is a collaborative effort between author and audience.” But those exact words don’t appear anywhere, for a good reason: I intensely dislike “the fact that” and don’t use that phrase unless it’s absolutely necessary.

So let’s summarize what’s passed between you (the reader) and me (the writer) in today’s entry:

  • People in the real world use the possessive-with-a-gerundive construction. At least Ariel Levy does. Or his editor at the New Yorker.
  • Writing should flow with no backtracking and no side trips to www.Dictionary.com or Google.
  • Real-world writers sometimes run red lights, so to speak, to avoid clumsy constructions, as I did when I deliberately chose an indefinite pronoun reference.

And that’s enough for one day!

red light ok


Possessive with a Gerund

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!

Ed Crankshaft and his cat, Pickles

Ed Crankshaft and  Pickles