Using Gerunds Correctly

The title of this post gives an example of a gerund: It is a verb form ending in “-ing” and used as a noun. It is identical to the present participle, but its use as a noun makes it a gerund, not a participle.

Another post mentions the tendency in some regions of this Country to use the form of the past participle instead, as in “the floor needs washed.” The floor may need a scrubbing, but what the verb needs is a noun, a direct object. Past participles do not meet that requirement; however, gerunds and infinitives do.

Not every verb form ending in “-ing” is a gerund, but all gerunds end in “-ing.” Sometimes a present participle will be used as an adjective (as in “stalking horse” and “walking stick”). Present participles are used mainly as parts of the verb (with an auxiliary verb — “to be”). They form the progressive tense. (Examples: “They are talking” and “The queen was nodding off”) In all events, if the verb form ending in “-ing” is used as a noun, it is a gerund.

This post is not about when to use a gerund, but rather about an important rule to apply once you decide to put one to work: Gerunds require a possessive adjective and not a pronoun. What does that mean? Consider this sentence:

lucy complainingI’m tired of Lucy’s complaining.

Many people will say that correctly. A few might say, “I’m tired of Lucy complaining,” which is wrong. It simply makes good sense that what you are tired of is “complaining” and not “Lucy.” Whose complaining is it? Lucy’s. That is why the possessive is always used with a gerund. This possessive is an adjective, answering the question, “whose?”

Where things go astray, when they do, is the substitution of a pronoun for the noun in a sentence like the one above. Suppose it was Linus, not Lucy, who was complaining:

I’m tired of his complaining.

Many people say “I’m tired of him complaining.” That is just as much a mistake as the example above with the proper noun, “Lucy.” Just remember, “him complaining” is stringing a pronoun and a noun together, as if the verb had two direct objects, and the listener has to choose which one of them to accept: Are you tired of “him,” or are you tired of “complaining“? For the sake of clarity, what you need is a possessive adjective. Notice that, for females, there’s no problem, as the possessive adjective (“her”) is the same as the objective personal pronoun (“her”).

This situation becomes even worse when the pronoun in question is not in the third person, but rather in the first or second person: “I hope you are not tired of my complaining” or “I am not yet tired of your complaining.” It is so easy to slip into the wrong usage: “tired of me complaining” or “tired of you complaining.

Just remember: the gerund always takes the possessive. It’s that simple.

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Born in Pittsburgh, educated at Yale. Practiced law in Washington DC. Moved to Colorado. Lived in Mexico. Translator and internet content writer.

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