Possessives: With gerunds

Issue 305 • September 10, 2009 – Issue 305
Last week’s issue (gerunds as subjects) prompted several people to ask about using possessives before gerunds.
Yes, you should make a noun possessive before a gerund:

     The builders’ hammering woke us at 7 a.m.
But remember that a gerund is an -ing word used as a noun. Not all -ing words are gerunds, so they’re not all nouns.
An -ing word can also modify a noun. In that case it’s called a participle, and you don’t need to alter the noun it modifies:

     The builders working across the street helped me with my flat tire.
Which word modifies the other is often a subjective call. Consider these two nearly identical sentences:
     Justin’s dancing caught everyone’s attention.

     (Dancing, being done by Justin, caught everyone’s attention.)
     Justin dancing caught everyone’s attention.

     (Justin, who was dancing, caught everyone’s attention.)
If you’re not sure, try subbing in a possessive pronoun. “Their hammering woke us” makes sense. “Their working across the street helped me with my flat tire” does not.

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