June Casagrande

June Casagrande

A few weeks ago, I mentioned here 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 grammar 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." In these sentences, the true object of the verbs are singing and dancing, respectively. They are no longer working as modifiers but as nouns — gerunds.

And notice what happens to the noun in front of them: Betty becomes Betty's. The person herself is no longer the object of the verb, but is instead modifying the object, which it can now do because it's in the possessive.

Whoever taught Bill that a noun before a gerund must always be possessive didn't have the facts quite right. "I saw Jen walking" defies the rule Bill was taught. Yet it's clearly correct because the structure, with "Jen" as a noun and "walking" as a modifier of the noun, is both grammatical and standard.

Like most not-quite-right grammar rules, the advice Bill got is rooted in some decent advice. Consider the sentences "I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me" and "I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me." The one with "you," that is, the one without the possessive, has long been considered an error. It's not, exactly. But it is odd (at best) in its syntax.

When you meet a prospective employer and say these words, chances are it's the act you appreciate and not him as a human being. So the object of the verb is "taking," which we modify with "your."

Nonpossessive "you" can't modify a noun the way "your" can. So in "I appreciate you taking," we have two nouns lined up for the same job — object of the verb "appreciate." Some experts have called this the "fused participle" and consider it inferior to the standard possessive-with-gerund structure. But it's widely accepted as an idiom.

As for our sentence about the president, we need to ask: Was the article about him making a stop or was it about his making a stop? You could interpret it either way, but it comes down to writer intent. And as the writer of the phrase "the president making an unannounced stop," I can tell you that my focus was more on the president than on the making. So it's the same form as "I saw Jen walking," which, of course, is grammatical.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.