A Word, Please: If it sounds right, it probably is

My friend Anne wrote recently to ask about a pair of sentences she was puzzling over. She wanted to know which of the following is correct: “Me seeing that letter is important” or “My seeing that letter is important.”

She had an idea: “I think it's ‘my,’” she wrote, “but I don't know why I think that.”

I know why she thought that: because “my” seems more natural and more logical. Ninety-nine times out of 100 something that seems better is better. After all, grammar rules are really just an analysis of how we use the language. We use it by instinct and the rules usually reflect that.

As Anne guessed, “my” is better in her sentence than “me.” Anyone who’s happy with a simple, intuitive answer can leave it at that. But for people who like to understand the why of these things — well, that’s tougher, because this touches on a matter that grammarians have been wrangling over for centuries.

The example with “my” is a form often called “possessive with gerund” — “my” is possessive and “seeing” a gerund. Sometimes called a “verbal noun” a gerund is the “ing” form of a verb when it’s being used as a noun.

Compare “Seeing is believing” to “I am seeing a doctor.” In the first, “seeing” is the subject of the sentence, doing the job of a noun. But in the second, it’s acting as a verb. Forms ending in “ing” can also be adjectives: “Seeing eyes notice many details.” But when they’re doing the job of nouns, they’re gerunds.

Just like other nouns, gerunds can sit at the head of a sentence or even be modified by other words: my seeing, his dancing, Tim’s leaving, drunk driving.

So is an adjective-noun combo appropriate in the sentence, “My seeing that letter is important”? Yes, because this combo — a noun phrase — is functioning as the subject of that sentence. The main verb in the sentence is “is.” The stuff before “is” forms the subject — the thing performing the action of being.

Now look at the alternative, “Me seeing that letter is important.” In this, the noun “seeing” has traded in the modifier with which it worked so well, “my,” for a pronoun that’s just sitting next to it, “me.” It’s as though two words — both nouns at heart — are to competing to be subject of the sentence.

But only one can be the subject, so which one is it? Which one is the thing that “is important”? Well, it doesn’t seem that the speaker was trying to say “Me is important” or even a grammatical variation like “I am important.” That’s clearly not her point. The seeing is still the important thing. So now “me” doesn’t really have a clear grammatical job to do.

Usage expert H.W. Fowler condemned this construction, calling it a “fused participle” (“participle” refers to how “seeing” is no longer a noun but is more like a piece of a verb just sitting there). But most experts would later disagree with him.

Look at these examples: “The tongue’s swelling is a bad sign.” “I hate the idea of anyone’s knowing.”

“He was happy to hear about the cat’s returning home.”

A lot of skilled writers would actually prefer the so-called “fused participle” to these.

“The selection of the possessive or the selection of the ‘fused participle’ is simply not a matter of right and wrong,” according to “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.”

When in doubt, try the possessive plus gerund first. But feel free to chuck it out if it sounds weird.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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