Possessive with gerund


A while back, I mentioned a CNN article “about the president making an unannounced stop.”

Two readers emailed with the same question. Here’s Bill in Niskayuna, N.Y.: “I was taught that a noun or pronoun preceding a gerund … should be in the possessive case, as it’s acting as a modifier. Thus, that would result in ‘the president’s making an unannounced stop.’”

This is a common view, but it’s a little off. To understand why, we need a quick refresher.

A gerund is the form of a verb that ends in “ing” and is used as a noun. Compare “Jen is walking” to “Walking is good exercise.” In the first sentence, the subject is the noun Jen and “walking” is a verb. But in the second sentence, the subject — the thing performing the “action” of the verb — is “walking.”

There’s a word for this: Anytime an “ing” form of a verb is functioning as a noun it’s called a gerund.

But “ing” verb forms can do other jobs, as well. They can function as part of the verb, which we saw above in “Jen is walking.” These participles can also act as modifiers — adjectives, really: “We went on a walking tour.”

This is also how we understand participles in sentences like “We saw Jen walking.” Here, the object of the verb is Jen — she’s the one we saw. The word “walking” is technically modifying the noun Jen. So here, too, “walking” is a participial modifier.

But what if the object of the verb isn’t so much the person as the action? For example, “I love Betty’s singing” or “I don’t like Betty’s dancing.” I explore the answer in this column.

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