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Obsessive about the possessive

March 23, 2011

Sometimes it is hard to avoid the intricacies of language. One example of this pops up at the tail end of discussing possessives in a workshop. I touch on seemingly awkward expressions such as: ‘The members paid their dues without my asking them’. Ouch, they say, ‘my’. Why? They might prefer:  ‘The members paid their dues without me asking them’. And so we plunge into gerunds, participles and possessives. We are so acquainted with our language and its use (and abuse) that we rely on our inner ‘ear’ a great deal. But, as always, we have a choice. And there is a correct and incorrect version. What about the following examples.

  • ‘I like him singing in the house.’ The emphasis is on ‘him’; ‘singing’ is modifying ‘him’. ‘Singing’ is a present participle acting as an adjective. So this is straightforward.
  • ‘I like his singing in the house.’ Now the tables are turned. The emphasis is on ‘singing’; ‘his’ modifies ‘singing’. ‘Singing’ is now a ‘gerund’ acting as a noun; in fact the object of ‘like’. And here we modify a gerund with the possessive. We have to, or else we confuse ‘his singing’ with ‘him singing’.

So ‘my’ is correct in our first example. If I use ‘me’, then ‘asking’ is describing ‘me’ in some way. Which it is not. This is a common error and easily made. It is avoidable, if we tread softly through the often confusing world of syntax and grammar.

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