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Category Archives: Grammar

Oh Me Oh My: Gerunds and Possessive Pronouns

Gerundimo

Gerundimo?

Does me dancing in the buff appall you? It should, because the correct construction is “my dancing in the buff.”

Like superheroes, participles (words that end in ing) sometimes have secret identities. In this case, dancing enters the phone booth a verb and leaves it a noun. An –ing verb that acts as a noun is a gerund. The gerund phrase “dancing in the buff” should be treated like any other noun, which is why my is correct and me is not:

  • Does my spatula appall you?
  • Does my dancing in the buff appall you?

Cheesy Irish accents aside, “Does me spatula appall you?” doesn’t work.

If you’ll pardon my getting technical for a moment, a pronoun that comes right before a gerund should be in its possessive form: my instead of me, your instead of you, their instead of them, etc.

  • Their lordships were not impressed by his spitting in the epergne.
  • Don’t expect me to be put off by your lining the driveway with explosive flamingos.
  • The other sheep were insistent on its not being a crime.
  • Our stealing from the shareholders was all in good fun.
  • Agent Cooper wasn’t fazed in the least by their talking backwards.

Proper names and nouns also step into their possessive boots when they come before a gerund:

  • Federico was charmed with Julia’s taking in fallen bats and nursing them back to health.
  • She was a little uneasy about her new husband’s making his living on the cabaret circuit.

(I should add that the Chicago Manual of Style thinks I’m an old stick-in-the-mud. According to the sixteenth edition, the possessive form is “usually” optional when the noun or pronoun follows a preposition, which is the case in most of the above examples. But what do they know?)

Gerund Hide-and-Seek

Nailing down a participle as a gerund or not a gerund is crucial to deciding whether or not to lock and load your possessives.

  • Husbands looking to start death metal bands are morally obligated to inform their wives.
  • Husbands’ looking to start death metal bands is a major cause of divorce.

In the first example, the phrase looking to start death metal bands is describing the subject husbands; it’s behaving like an adjective, not a noun, and is therefore not a gerund. In the second example, looking to start death metal bands is a gerund phrase, since here it’s acting as a noun: What is a major cause of divorce? Looking to start death metal bands.

  • We worried about his going up in that balloon.
  • We worried about him, going up in that balloon.

In the first sentence, going up in that balloon is a gerund phrase. If it walks like a noun and quacks like a noun, then use the possessive form his, just as you would in “We worried about his spatula.” (The Chicago Manual of Style would point out that, since about is a preposition, you could just as correctly—though not, in my opinion, as elegantly—write “We worried about him going up in that balloon.”) In the second sentence, going up in that balloon is describing him, and is therefore not a gerund. Nouns don’t describe; they just are.

Some participial phrases are deceptively gerund-like:

  • You don’t want to hear me trying to play the flugelhorn.

Here the participle trying is describing me:

  • You don’t want to hear me (trying to play the flugelhorn).
  • Torn between horror and fascination, his students watched him dancing the hoochie coochie.

The important question is whether dancing the hoochie coochie is behaving as a noun or describing the teacher.

  • Torn between horror and fascination, his students watched him (dancing the hoochie coochie).
  • The students disapproved of his dancing the hoochie coochie.

Just as you would write “The students disapproved of his spatula,” use the possessive form his before the gerund. (Shut up, Chicago Manual of Style.)

Let’s test ourselves with the following sentence:

  • Him dancing the hoochie coochie came as a shock to them.

Is the phrase dancing the hoochie coochie acting as a description?

  • Him (dancing the hoochie coochie) came as a shock to them. (Doesn’t work.)

Is it a gerund (acting as a noun)?

  • His spatula came as a shock to them. (Works grammatically.)
  • His dancing the hoochie coochie came as a shock to them. (Correct! The original sentence was wrong.)

Mating gerunds and possessives is an underrated skill, but one that all true grammar aficionados embrace. I can only hope my waving spatulas around has helped you understand gerunds a little better.

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Dangling Whatsits: What To Do When You’ve Misplaced a Modifier

Harold Lloyd

Dangling Like a Participle

You’ve heard of dangling participles, maybe even dangling gerunds, and you know they’re bad, but just what the hell are they?

Danglers, or misplaced modifiers, are what happen when a description wanders too far from its subject, leaving part of your sentence dangling like an errant booger and just as unsightly. Your readers may apply your description to the wrong word, or find themselves at a loss to know what you’re describing at all.

Consider the following sentence:

  • Yelping and whining, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.

It may seem obvious it’s the werewolf, not the jogger, who’s yelping and whining, but according to the rules of grammar, the phrase yelping and whining (a participial phrase, if you’re curious) describes the closest subject, which is jogger. So your reader could be forgiven for assuming the jogger decided to get in touch with her inner canine. If that wasn’t the effect you were shooting for, you need to rearrange your sentence:

  • Hearing yelping and whining, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.

The descriptive phrase (led by the participle hearing) now correctly applies to the closest subject (jogger). Alternatively, you could move werewolf closer to its description:

  • Yelping and whining, the werewolf attracted the attention of an early-morning jogger, who rushed to its aid.

There are many ways to reattach a dangler to its subject; how you choose to do it is up to you.

  • A consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

This is another example of a confusing subject: who is the consummate high-wire artist, the man or the woman? As the sentence is written, it’s the man. A little rearrangement makes the meaning clear:

  • Knowing Nadia to be a consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

He’s the one who knows, so he is the closest subject following the phrase that starts with knowing (another participle, for those of you keeping track).

  • Enjoying her new-found freedom, the Greyhound bus trip to Vegas was a short one.

The bus trip is apparently enjoying her freedom, until we rewrite the sentence:

  • Enjoying her new-found freedom, she found the Greyhound bus trip to Vegas a short one.

Some misplaced modifiers can be subtle and hard to spot:

  • Euphemia was not the only woman in the group of dandies wearing spats.

Are we talking about a group of spats-wearing dandies that includes more than one woman, or a group of dandies that contains more than one woman in spats? The participial phrase here is wearing spats, and it should be placed closest to the word it’s describing, woman or dandies:

  • Euphemia was not the only woman wearing spats in the group of dandies.
  • In the group of dandies wearing spats, Euphemia was not the only woman. (This is essentially the same as the original sentence, but less open to misinterpretation.)

Dangling Infinitives

Infinitive phrases, which start with the infinitive form of a verb (such as to tango, to simmer, to cogitate, etc.), are also at risk of dangling:

  • To be first-class, you must have giant-squid-fighting extensions on your submarine.

It is your submarine, not you, that is striving to be first-class:

  • To be first-class, your submarine must have giant-squid-fighting extensions.
  •  To throw a good birthday party, something must be encased in papier-mâché.

The implied subject of the phrase to throw a good birthday party is you; but then something muscles in and seems to want to take over the role of subject. A careful writer will avoid this confusion by making the real subject explicit:

  • To throw a good birthday party, you must encase something in papier-mâché.
  • A good birthday party must include something encased in papier-mâché. (Sometimes the best way to avoid a dangling infinitive is to scrap the infinitive phrase altogether.)

Dangling Gerunds

This is what a dangling gerund phrase looks like:

  • Upon entering the crypt, my hair stood on end.

In this sentence, entering is a gerund. Like a participle, it ends in -ing, but unlike a participle, it functions as a noun, not a modifier. The gerund phrase entering the crypt is the object of the preposition upon, but where is its subject? As the sentence is written, the subject is my hair, which admittedly did enter the crypt, but presumably not under its own steam.

If that last paragraph left you clutching your own hair in confusion, don’t worry. All you need to know is this: upon entering the crypt describes the closest subject, which at the moment is my hair.

  • Upon entering the crypt, I felt my hair stand on end.
  • My hair stood on end the moment I entered the crypt. (Again, sometimes avoiding a potential dangler is the best solution.)

Some dangling gerunds look innocent enough to pass unnoticed:

  • While donning his superhero mask, a sense of his own silliness came over him.

Technically, though, we’re claiming his sense is donning a superhero mask. Better to make the subject explicit and avoid the sneers of the grammar cognoscenti:

  • While donning his superhero mask, he was overcome by a sense of his own silliness.

Even without a gerund as its object, a preposition can still lead to dangling:

  • With hats of such size, large birds sometimes tried to mate with the heads of fashionable ladies out for a stroll.

It was not, of course, the birds who sported the oversized headgear:

  • With hats of such size, fashionable ladies out for a stroll sometimes found their heads under attack by large birds trying to mate.

The Inevitable Exceptions

Of course there are exceptions—this is English, after all. If you’re keeping an eye peeled for participles, be aware that -ing words acting as prepositions (a.k.a. participial prepositions) are dangle-proof. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • assuming
  • barring
  • concerning
  • considering
  • during
  • following
  • given
  • granted
  • owing to
  • provided
  • regarding
  • respecting
  • speaking

Phrases beginning with these words need a subject like a fish needs a bicycle.

  • Barring unusual weather, the balloon should reach Abyssinia by Thursday.
  • Concerning his wayward daughter, who had run off with a fallen seraph, he would only put a hand over his eyes and mutter about feathers.
  • Given his aversion to emotional displays, the effusiveness with which the general greeted his poodle’s return was surprising.
  • Regarding the proposed orgy, it was generally felt that dim lighting would be best for all concerned.

Whether or not you know a participle from your elbow, or a gerund from a hole in the ground, you can avoid danglers of all stripes by making sure your subject is always clear. In short, your readers should know what you’re talking about. It’s not too much for them to ask.