The Grammarphobia Blog

David Crystal being right

Q: I was reading David Crystal’s blog the other day and I noticed his post “On me/my being right.” He said either “me” or “my” could be correct. “The non-possessive one highlights the verb phrase,” he wrote, “whereas the possessive one highlights the noun phrase.” Strunk and White would insist on “my” here. Who’s right, Crystal or S&W? Is this a US-vs.-UK thing? Please clarify.

A: No, this isn’t an American-vs.-British issue. We think Crystal (a linguist and a Brit) is right. As for Strunk and White, its strong suit is style, not grammar.

It’s true that a noun or pronoun modifying a gerund (an “–ing” word acting as a noun) should be in the possessive case: “Dick’s [or his] skiing has improved.” We’ve written about this subject before on our blog.

But as we write in that entry, not every “-ing” word is a gerund. It could be a participle (as in “I saw Dick skiing yesterday”).

The difference is one of emphasis: a gerund functions as a noun, while a participle functions as a verb. So if the “-ing” word could be replaced with a noun, then it’s a gerund.

We could say either “Dick’s athleticism [noun] has improved” or “Dick’s skiing [gerund] has improved.” In both cases, the modifier is in the possessive case.

Here’s another example. Say a singer and a record producer are talking. The producer might say either (1) “I’ve heard you singing” or (2) “I’ve heard your singing.” Both are correct, but the statements have different meanings.

In #1, “singing” is a participle; the speaker is emphasizing the verb (the act of singing).

In #2, “singing” is a gerund; the speaker is emphasizing the noun (the singing itself).

To use another example, the word “standing” can be either a participle or a gerund.

Participle: “I saw you standing on the cliff.”

Gerund: “I was alarmed by your standing on the cliff.”

We hope this makes things a bit clearer.

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