Adieu to “you” but more of “your”

Here’s an example of a question that writers face often. Which of the words in parentheses correctly completes the following sentence?

  • This sort of thing can happen without (you/your) being aware of it.

Oh no, it’s like the SATs all over again, right? Is the right choice the objective pronoun or the possessive pronoun?

I can’t find guidance on this in the Chicago Manual of Style. If you can, let me know. (Chicago confuses me in its discussion of pronouns by talking about “genitive” case for personal pronouns, which supposedly indicates the gender of the possessor but somehow includes my, your, our, their, and its. Huh?)

I’d like to think that most people would choose the latter (“your”). After all, you can recast the sentence (rephrase without danger of changing the meaning), arguably improving it, in a way that demonstrates that the possessive is clearly the better choice:

  • This sort of thing can happen without your awareness of it.

Now, consider this: “awareness” in the second example and “being” in the first example are the same part of speech. Both are nouns. “Being” is a gerund, a present participle (verb plus “ing”) used as a noun (CMS 16 5.110). Logically, because grammar is basically dictated by part of speech, if the possessive is the right choice in one case, it must be the right choice in the other, too. Remember “proofs” in high school geometry?

Therefore, writers: please don’t make the following mistakes.

  • The project was finished ahead of schedule thanks to me working overtime.
  • The guppies died because of Gary overfeeding them.
  • Instead of him acting shocked, he acted like he didn’t care.

Any time you have a sentence like this, with an objective pronoun or noun right before a present participle, you should see it as a signal to rewrite, and not necessarily just to change the objective pronoun or noun (me, Gary, him) to the possessive form. You might find a way to streamline.

  • The project was finished ahead of schedule thanks to my working overtime.
  • The guppies died because Gary overfed them.
  • Instead of acting shocked, he acted as if he didn’t care.

Doing away with the participle, as in the second sentence, is not a bad idea because participles can get in the way of clear, direct writing, and too many can bore the reader. Changing “him” to the possessive “his” in the third sentence alerts the writer to the strangeness of the pronoun there and leads to the realization that it’s uncalled for.


2 Comments on “Adieu to “you” but more of “your””

  1. Well, I realized that there’s a case where you’d want to NOT use the possessive when it’s followed by a participle. Take the following sentence: Even with Stan “Leadfoot” Parker driving, it took them three hours to reach Albuquerque.

    When the participle functions as a prepositional phrase (in this case, “driving” has the meaning of “in the driver’s seat”), you should use the objective case (“Stan” or “him”).

    At first I thought the following example was another kind of exception, but it’s really the same thing. “Accidentally opening the door and seeing him undressing was horribly embarrassing.”

    To say “seeing his undressing” makes it sound as though the person behind the door were being undressed by someone else, and to say “seeing him undress” makes it sound as though the speaker were witness to the whole event, rather than only glimpsing it. When you think about it, the real reading of “undressing” is “in a state of undress,” meaning this is another example of a participle taking the place of a prepositional phrase.

  2. […] This week’s is a quick but timely entry (I also plan to add to an earlier post, “Adieu to ‘you’ but more of ‘your'”). […]

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