A guide to gerunds

Grammar is confusing. That was my first thought in my editing class at university, and now it’s pretty much my mantra.

Every editing class I attended was like unlearning all the things I learnt at school – things that I thought were grammatical rules and if I broke them the grammar police would lock me up for treason. I learnt that you don’t always have to say my friend and I, contrary to what my primary school teachers taught me. Depending on the sentence, my friend and me is acceptable too. I learnt that you can split an infinitive (sorry, Strunk and White). And that the world won’t explode if you end a sentence with a preposition. Anyway, we’ve got things to get on with. (See what I did there?)

Today I wanted to write about gerunds. Specifically, using possessives with gerunds. Before I started my degree in professional writing and editing, I had no idea what a gerund was.

Here’s how Grammar Girl describes them:

It’s a verb form that resembles an adjective or adverb but is actually a noun. In other words, it’s a noun that’s trying to trick you into thinking it’s a verb.

You can usually spot these cheeky gerunds by looking for words ending in -ing. All gerunds end in -ing, but not every -ing word you see is a gerund. Sometimes, an -ing word is a participle instead. Ah, grammar, you’re a cruel mistress.

So, how do we spot gerunds?

I like to think of a verb going to a costume party, dressing up as a noun. Let’s have a look at an example:

I like swimming.

I am swimming away from the shark.

In the first example, ‘swimming’ is acting as a noun. Gerund!

In the second, ‘swimming’ is still a part of the verb. It helps to complete the action.

A good tactic to use is the noun test. If you can swap out the verb-noun imposter for a regular noun, it’s a gerund or a gerund phrase. Let’s try it with the examples above, using the noun ‘pants’:

I like pants.

I am pants away from the shark.

Okay, great. Gerunds. Got it.

Now, what about the rule on using a possessive with a gerund? To simplify it: nouns often naturally team with possessives. Whenever we mean ‘the x of y’, we can naturally rephrase that as possessive: ‘y’s x’.

I admire the cat of my sister.

I admire my sister’s cat.

The same goes for gerunds.

I admire the singing of my sister.

I admire my sister’s singing.

‘Singing’ is being used as a noun here. It’s a gerund, and it belongs to ‘my sister’ – so we use a possessive to indicate this. I feel it’s necessary to mention here that this is all down to style. Sometimes you’ll see a gerund without a possessive:

  1. I’m tired of my sister’s swimming.
  2. I’m tired of my sister swimming.

The second example isn’t wrong, and it certainly has its use. As the world moves to favour more colloquial language, the second example pops up more and more often. So please, don’t go correcting people’s gerunds on Facebook. Still, it’s good to be aware of this stuff so you can make choices in your writing. Want to write a fancy, primp and proper sounding character? You could always throw a few possessive gerunds in their dialogue for some extra spice. If you’re writing a YA novel, don’t be afraid to throw those possessives to the wind.

To end my grammar lesson, I’d like to use my favourite example of a man who knows his possessive + gerund equation better than us all.

Yep, Fagin from Oliver Twist.

There’s a scene where Fagin instructs Oliver to pick a handkerchief from his pocket using his deft little fingers. Right before launching into song, Fagin instructs him, ‘See if you can take it from me without my noticing.’

A lovely use of possessive with gerund. Perhaps Fagin should have become an editor. Oliver Twist would’ve been a very different story if Fagin ran a publishing house instead of a band of junior thieves.

Fagin after being interrupted editing some possessive gerund issues, probably. Source: BritishTheatre.com

Katrina Burge – Publishing Intern

2 responses to “A guide to gerunds

  1. Wow I have just learned a lot about gerunds lol. This is so well written and very funny. Great work Katrina. I can see you have un learned and learned a lot

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