Getting Possessive with Gerunds

Let’s talk about the use of possessive pronouns with a gerund (word ending in ing). It sounds more complicated and technical than it is. If you can answer this question about the following sentence, you can master this.

Is the verb (action/feeling) directed at the person or their action?

  • I resented my mother-in-law being late for dinner.
  • I resented my mother-in-law’s being late for dinner.

Forget my relationship with my mother-in-law. I didn’t resent her. I resented her lateness for the meal I’d prepared. The possessive (mother-in-law’s) precedes the gerund (being) and makes clear it’s my mother-in-law’s action, not her, that I resent. However, if you want to point out that it’s she who is late rather than someone else, the first example would be the one you want to use. You would not use a possessive in that instance.

The rule can be a little murkier when the noun preceding the gerund is replaced with a pronoun.

  • I could understand him begging off for the holidays after a stressful week.
  • I could understand his begging off for the holidays after a stressful week.

If you mean to differentiate him from someone else (“I could understand him rather than Sophie begging off”), you would use the first example. But if you are emphasizing his actions, the second example is correct.

The same basic rule applies here:

  • Our guests removed their shoes without me asking them.
  • Our guests removed their shoes without my asking them.

Determine whether you want to emphasize the person or the action, and then you’ll know whether to use a possessive or not.

3 Responses to “Getting Possessive with Gerunds”

  1. Susannah MacDonald June 27, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

    Gerund! Now that’s a lovely word. This is a most useful post as it addresses one of my pet peeves and reminds me exactly what my mom used to say when I made the above – or similar – mistakes.

  2. Harald Johnson June 27, 2015 at 6:46 pm #

    I love these tight little tidbits you offer. Thanks!

  3. Victoria Marie Lees July 1, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

    I enjoy your information tips as well. I don’t believe they teach English grammar like they used to in schools. Or at least that’s what I tell my five children when I give the reason for a correction in their written work. Thanks again for this explanation.

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