ME o’ MY! Skip if you’re not a grammar geek

I emailed my husband about a trip I was considering to go visit my friend. I typed the sentence, “Would you want me to book you a ticket to join me or would you be OK with me going by myself?” Then I said to myself, “No, that’s not right. It should be ‘…MY going by myself’ … right?” Because it’s a gerund, the noun form of a verb made by adding “ing,” it should take a possessive subject, yes?

Dammit. I read something about this. It may not be wrong. (Cursing to self … can’t let it go … have to go look it up.)

From H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908. Chapter II. Syntax,

“It is indeed no wonder that the forms in -ing should require close attention. Exactly how many old English terminations -ing is heir to is a question debated by historical grammarians, which we are not competent to answer. But we may point out that writing may now be (1) participle—I was writing; I saw him writing; writing piously, he acts profanely—, (2) gerund or full verbal noun—I object to your writing that—, (3) hybrid between gerund and participle—I do not mind you writing it—, (4) detached verbal noun—Writing is an acquired art—, (5) concrete noun—This writing is illegible. Moreover, the verbal noun writing has the synonym to write,obligatory instead of it in some connexions, better in some, worse in some, and impossible in others; compare, for instance: I do not like the trouble of writing; I shall not take the trouble to write; the trouble of writing is too much for him; it is a trouble to write; writing is a trouble. The grammatical difficulties, that is, are complicated by considerations of idiom.”

All right. That’s not much help. Let’s try Chicago’s Manual of Style. On possessives, 7:28: “Gerunds. A noun (or more commonly a pronoun) followed by a gerund may take the possessive form in contexts where, if a pronoun was used, it would be in the possessive case. This practice, elegant if followed appropriately, requires caution. …”

CMOS says using a possessive in some cases “might sound pedantic to some” and they give the example: “She was worried about her daughter (or daughter’s) going there alone.” But it would not sound pedantic in other cases; example: “The problem of their finding the right publisher can be solved.”

“Sounds pedantic” to me is not the same thing as “the other usage is wrong.” If it’s correct to write “I’m worried about my daughter going there alone,” then I’m going to write that, because that’s how most people speak. If it’s wrong, in spite of how most people say it, then I want to use the correct form.

But in the case of pronouns, CMOS indicates it’s “more correct” to use possessives with gerunds when there’s a pronoun. “The problem of their finding the right publisher… ” is better than “the problem of them finding the right publisher.” But it never says the second use is wrong. So is my saying, “Would you be OK with me going by myself” wrong? Or less pedantic? (I notice that it felt natural to say “my saying” in the subject of this sentence).

Let’s turn to Garner’s Modern American Usage where he speaks of a “fused participle,” a phrase coined by H.W. Fowler: “a participle that is (1) used as a noun (ie, a gerund), and (2) preceded by a noun or pronoun not in the possessive case—thus, ‘ME going home made her sad’ rather than the preferred ‘MY going home made her sad.'” Fowler called it “grammatically indefensible” and other grammarians has cited any number of historical examples and have said it’s absolutely necessary to use the fused participle in some sentences “barring a complete rewrite.”

“But Fowler had a stylistic if not a grammatical point,” Garner continues. “Especially in formal prose,  the possessive ought to be used whenever it is not … unnatural.” And he gives the example, “The pattern of our life, which now involves me spending some days each week totally alone…” in which the “me” should be “my.” Garner concludes that a modern rule should be: “When the -ing (present) participle has the force of a noun, it preferably take a possessive subject, especially in formal context. But when the -ing participle has the force of a verb, a nonpossessive subject is acceptable, especially in informal contexts.”

So. It appears that in my sentence “… would you be OK with me going by myself?” it’s better in formal writing to use “my” instead of “me.” But “me” is acceptable, and if you don’t want to look like a total grammar dork in certain situations, go ahead and use it with a clear conscience.

I welcome comments, and arguments pro and con, on this topic.


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