Steve Martin's latest book is An Object of Beauty; his previous was The Pleasure of My Company. That possessive pronoun "my" before a noun looks fine, but if it were before a gerund, would we enjoy it as much?
Copy editor extraordinaire Kristen E. recently noted that she doesn't, always. She doesn't enjoy their appearing at all. Would Kristen enjoy them appearing more? Ah, there's the rub! Their vs. them, before a gerund. Why do grammar books mandate the use of the possessive before the gerund?
Think of gerunds, those verbals that end in -ing, as nouns. Think of nouns and how we work with them when they aren't gerunds. Think of Steve Martin. (But please, don't think of juggling kittens, King Tut, Two Wild and Crazy Guys, or The Jerk -- all quite long-ago creations of Steve Martin that have been amusing us for years. This is something else indeed.)
The Pleasure of My Company is a perfectly well constructed noun phrase, as perfectly constructed as Mr. Martin's subtle sentences, shapely plots, and acutely drawn characters. The title is a quiet object of beauty in itself. It's got a headword, or main noun: Pleasure. It has an article: The. It has an adjectival prepositional phrase composed of a preposition, of; an object of that preposition, Company; and a possessive pronoun, My, modifiying Company. "My company" rolls off the cover and flows past our language processing centers with nary a ripple.
Possessive pronouns appear before nouns. Easy enough.
Gerunds are nouns. Despite their verby look, their -ing ending, the way they mimic, nay, are identical to the participles that in fact make up so many English verbs--is eating, was writing, have been amusing--gerunds are not verbs. They are forms of the verb that are nouns.
Gerunds are natural: Think of how we say "His running is getting better." "Jane's skiing has improved so much!" "Their accounting leaves a lot to be desired." All these -ing words get modifiers, and possessive pronouns do that job.
Where we run into trouble is when a gerund (an -ing noun) and its possessive pronoun come right after a real verb. Think of "He admired her eating." Our eyes follow the sentence, and see that he admired her, and then that he admired her eating. Neither construction is out of the orindary. Her works as the object of the verb admired AND as the modifier of the noun eating. Nice trick, her!
But when we have a construction such as "Kristen doesn't enjoy their appearing at all," our language processing centers can jam up. Our eyes move along the sentence and see Kristen doesn't enjoy . . . their? We intuitively expect the object form, them, in that spot right after the verb, not the possessive their, which goes on to modify the gerund appearing.
The problem arises when a possessive pronoun is in a tight spot, between a transitive verb that usually takes an object and a noun that needs a possessive. Some pronouns, like the graceful her, can do both; others, like the clumsy his and him, cannot.
I conclude, therefore, that feminine pronouns are better at multitasking than masculine ones. I leave any sexist conclusions to you, as well as a recommendation to read Steve Martin. Now.
Do you enjoy a possessive pronoun before a gerund? Do you wish the construction would go jump in a lake? Let us know!
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.