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

January 20, 2012|By June Casagrande

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.

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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.

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