The Grammarphobia Blog

It does mean a thing (if it’s got that “ing”)

Q: I go nuts when I hear people say things like “Do you mind me smoking?” And not just because smoking is such a vile habit. The grammar is all screwed up too. Shouldn’t it be “Do you mind my smoking”?

A: A lot of people get this wrong. In my grammar book Woe Is I, I refer to it as the Gordian knot of possessive puzzles. But this knot isn’t hard to untie once you know a trick or two.

“Smoking” in your example is a gerund, a word that is made up of a verb plus “ing” and that acts as a noun. Since “smoking” acts as a noun, it should be treated like a noun.

To see what’s going on here, let’s replace “smoking” with a real noun – say, “habit.” Which of these two examples is correct?

(1) “Do you mind my habit?”

(2) “Do you mind me habit?”

The first one is obviously right. So here’s a hint: if you can substitute a noun for an “ing” word, then treat it like a noun.

Of course not all “ing” words act as nouns. Some act as adjectives (“Has he found a smoking gun?”) and some are parts of verbs (“Is he smoking out the scandal?”).

In a couple of cases, you may not want to treat an “ing” word like a noun even if it’s acting as a noun.

Sometimes it’s too clumsy to use a possessive with a gerund – for instance, when you have to make a whole string of words possessive, not just one.

Here’s an example from Woe Is I: “Basil objects to men and women kissing in public.” Using the possessive (“men’s and women’s kissing”) would create an ugly monstrosity.

Another complication is the kind of sentence that could go two ways. Here’s what I mean:

(1) Basil dislikes that woman’s wearing shorts.

(2) Basil dislikes that woman wearing shorts.

Both are correct, but they mean different things. In the first, Basil dislikes shorts on the woman. In the second, he dislikes the woman herself.

And that’s the long and the short of it.

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