The AP Style Guide changed its preferred spelling of the abbreviated form of electronic mail to email (without the hyphen) over the weekend. This is an example of the tendency of language to become more simple over time. Languages are living after all, and rules of style and usage change along with the cultures they are a part of.
The change to email made me wonder whether one of the most common grammatical mistakes I see in well-written contracts is not an error, but rather an evolutionary change of the language. So, I wonder, is it still proper to use a possessive with a gerund?
What’s a gerund?
A gerund is a verbal form ending in -ing and used as a noun. Writing in the sentence “Writing contracts is fun” is a gerund. It’s an -ing form of a verb and serves as the subject of the sentence—that is, as a noun.
Why use a possessive with a gerund?
Let’s take the sentence “The attorney’s leaving his job in January 2011 to work at Howrey was a bold career move.” Leaving is a gerund because it’s a verbal form ending in -ing used as the subject of a sentence. In this case attorney modifies leaving, so it’s in the possessive form. If attorney were the subject of the sentence, it would not take the possessive (in which case leaving would function as an adjective, and thus be a participle). But that’s clearly not the case here.
A common example of incorrect usage is illustrated in the statement “I appreciate you turning the draft of the contract so quickly.” In this case turning is a gerund functioning as the subject of the sentence, so the correct form of you is the possessive your. But you is so often used in this situation that it seems incorrect to write your.
So what has changed?
Reading about the AP Style Guide’s switch to email prompted me to investigate whether using a possessive with a gerund was still correct. As far as I can tell, nothing has changed. In this helpful post Mignon Fogarty discusses the various uses of -ing verb forms and confirms that the use of possessives with gerunds is correct. This Chicago Manual of Style Q&A further confirms that it is still correct to use possessives with gerunds.
So, will your writing “I like him getting into the weeds of grammatical usage” make you think twice now?