I know that, in terms of formal grammar, either a possessive pronoun or genitive form should precede a gerund. So, for example, 'his being', etc.

I am, however, far more comfortable with the former than the latter: I have read it more. Moreover, some writers - thinking mostly of academics, who are likely to know (and apply) the possessive/gerund rule - will apply the former rule while neglecting the latter rule. Why is this?

To take the example with which I am struggling:

Despite Smith borrowing from Brown, he innovated in his political thought where necessary.

Now, according to the rule, this phrase should be rewritten as: 'Despite Smith's borrowing from Brown, he innovated in his political thought where necessary.'

This is for a final-year dissertation at university, so it is obviously for a formal piece of work. Is is ttherefore advisable that I use the possessive/gerund rule? And, related to that, why does the possessive pronoun (his borrowing) sound correct (if a little stilted), but the genitive (Smith's borrowing) sounds as if the writer or speaker is not a native speaker and has an incomplete grasp of the language.

  • 1
    It will depend on the prejudices of those who will read your dissertation, so ask them. All we can tell you is that either the possessive (aka genitive) form (my, his, Bill's) or the basic (aka objective) form (me, him, Bill) can mark the subject of a gerund clause. The only kind of NP that can't mark gerund subjects is a nominative (I, he), which is limited to pronouns anyway. Jan 8, 2021 at 23:49
  • There's no "rule". If we rewrite it as a choice between "Despite him borrowing from Brown, Smith..." and "Despite his borrowing from Brown, Smith..." it's easier to see that both are in common usage, and the decision remains a matter of style (consult your university's style manual), and whether you want to use a more formal register (i.e. his/Smith's). The choice is a matter of opinion. Jan 9, 2021 at 5:06

1 Answer 1


In formal, traditional grammar, you would indeed want to use the possessive before a gerund:

Despite Smith's borrowing from Brown, he innovated in his political thought where necessary.

But now you have another problem (at least according to some grammarians): the possessive as antecedent. In the above sentence, Smith's is an adjective modifying the gerund borrowing, yet he refers to Smith, who's nowhere to be found here.

One might think that he = Smith is obvious. In fact many other grammarians find the structure acceptable.

Since you never know which grammarian your paper will come up against, let's write your worries away:

Despite borrowing from Brown, Smith innovated in his political thought where necessary.

What I think you might actually be trying to say is:

Although Smith borrowed from Brown, he innovated in his political thought where necessary.

And since innovated in a bit dodgy in form, perhaps:

Although Smith borrowed from Brown, he was innovative in his political thought when necessary.

For more discussion of possessive antecedents, see Possessive antecedent and The Nation: Parts of Speech; The Bloody Crossroads of Grammar and Politics.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.