A gerund is the present participle (-ing) form of a verb functioning as a noun in a sentence.
He responded by laughing. (The gerund “laughing” is the noun object of the preposition “by.”)
A gerund phrase is a gerund plus another element such as an adverb, an adjective, or a noun.
Saving money helps protect against unexpected expenses. (The gerund phrase “saving money” is the subject of the sentence; the noun “money” is the direct object of the gerund “saving.”)
Whether we are writing or speaking, a common source of confusion is the possession of a gerund by a noun or a pronoun. Which of the following is correct in formal communication?
We love the idea of their building a new house.
We love the idea of them building a new house.
One way to determine this is to look at the phrase as pronoun plus the word “action” (representing the gerund). Would we write “their action” or “them action”? We would write “their action.” Using a possessive noun or pronoun to describe an action (gerund) is the proper formal usage: We love the idea of their building a new house.
Note: A possessive pronoun may also be referred to as a possessive adjective.
Correct: The woman’s (possessive noun) departing (gerund) so soon from the meeting surprised everyone.
Incorrect: The woman departing so soon from the meeting surprised everyone.
Correct: The Smiths said that our (possessive pronoun) traveling (gerund) to Indonesia has inspired them to do the same.
Incorrect: The Smiths said that us traveling to Indonesia has inspired them to do the same.
Correct: Did your parents approve of your (possessive pronoun) going (gerund) to the prom?
Incorrect: Did your parents approve of you going to the prom?
On occasion, we may wish to place greater emphasis on the actor instead of the action. In this case, we would not use a possessive noun or pronoun with a gerund; rather, we would use a non-possessive noun or an objective pronoun (e.g., me, him, us, them) modified by a participle serving as an adjective.
This usage may be influenced by the context or wording in which it appears.
Example: The mysterious woman departing from the meeting early almost went unnoticed, but Jackie saw her go. (The noun “woman” is the sentence subject modified by the participle “departing.” The focus is more on the actor than the action.)
The following comparisons further reinforce the difference between a possessive noun or pronoun + gerund and an objective noun or pronoun + participle:
Jake’s lifting the full beer keg was impressive. (“Lifting” is a gerund preceded by a possessive noun so we know the emphasis is on the act of lifting.)
We saw Jake lifting the full beer keg. (“Lifting” is a participle modifying an objective noun so we know the emphasis is on the actor rather than the action.)
Note that we should avoid awkward use of a possessive noun or pronoun and a gerund.
Awkward: The committee agreed on someone’s being sent to meet with the union representative.
Better: The committee agreed on sending someone to meet with the union representative.
By ensuring proper pairings between gerunds and possessive nouns or pronouns, we can communicate with greater precision that shows our care for good grammar.
Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the correct gerund phrase emphasizing the action in each sentence.
1. [Samantha’s singing / Samantha singing] impressed the audience.
2. We’re reading the article about [Bob climbing / Bob’s climbing] Mt. Everest.
3. Have you heard of [him running / his running] for park district commissioner?
4. I’m looking forward to [their cooking / them cooking] at the block party this weekend.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. Samantha’s singing impressed the audience.
2. We’re reading the article about Bob’s climbing Mt. Everest.
3. Have you heard of his running for park district commissioner?
4. I’m looking forward to their cooking at the block party this weekend.
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