Preceding a Gerund with a Possessive
A gerund is an -ing verb form that is used as a noun.
Like any other noun, a gerund can function as the subject or object of a verb, or as the object of a preposition:
1. Gardening is my favorite hobby. (noun, subject of “is”)
2. He likes shooting skeet. (noun, object of “likes”)
3. He loves to talk about hunting. (noun, object of the preposition “about”)
4. Do you mind my asking a question? (noun, object of “mind”)
This post is about the use of my in the fourth example.
Why precede the gerund asking with the possessive adjective my? Why not write, “Do you mind me asking a question?”
In this sentence, the word asking is a gerund. A gerund is a noun. Nouns are modified by adjectives, not by other nouns or pronouns. Consider: Because some people don’t like animals, I ask a guest, “Do you mind my dog?” I wouldn’t say, “Do you mind me dog.” Ergo, I wouldn’t say, “Do you mind me asking?”
That’s the reasoning and the rule.
Then there’s popular usage:
If you don’t mind him calling you at work, give him your business card.
If you don’t mind them losing your possessions, then this is the hotel for you.
You should take out the garbage without me asking.
H. W. Fowler calls the construction of preceding a gerund with a noun or accusative pronoun a “fused participle” and devotes several tetchy pages to it in Modern English Usage. He illustrates the problem with three sentences:
1. Women having the vote share political power with men.
(This example is grammatically correct: having is a participle modifying the subject women.)
2. Women’s having the vote reduces men’s political power.
(This example is grammatically correct: having is a gerund modified by the possessive women’s.)
3. Women having the vote reduces men’s political power.
(This example is ungrammatical.)
Fowler points out that because the verb reduces is singular, women cannot be its subject. Yet, having can’t be the subject because that would leave women “in the air” without a grammatical function. He says the construction is a compound notion that fuses the noun women with the participle having. He calls this construction a “fused participle,” denouncing it altogether as “grammatically indefensible.”
Modern grammarians still prefer preceding the gerund with a possessive in formal usage, but do not uniformly condemn the fused participle as Fowler did.
A writer at a site about legal prose observes that sometimes a fused participle is the only idiomatic choice:
There are exceptions–sentences in which idiom simply demands that a participle be fused, or else the sentence rewritten altogether.–Lawprose.org/.
Some of the exceptions cited as being accepted by “respected usage commentators” are:
The likelihood of that happening is nil.
He frequently felt a chance of this happening.
He disapproved of politicians still in their prime writing memoirs.
Blindly following the rule with these sentences would produce the following unidiomatic constructions:
The likelihood of that’s happening is nil.
He frequently felt a chance of this’s happening.
He disapproved of politicians still in their prime’s writing memoirs.
Careful writers will continue to think carefully about which word precedes a gerund in formal writing. Even in informal speech and writing, a construction like, “I hate my husband being passed over at work” is to be avoided. As the speaker does not, presumably, hate her husband, the better choice is, “I hate my husband’s being passed over at work.”
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