Usage and Grammar

Q. Hi! I see a common mistake from writers I edit, but I’m not sure what to call it. An example sentence: “A key to understanding the movie was its being a musical.” Another: “One of the most interesting things about them is their endorsing a candidate.” A noun phrase made up of an “its + -ing + noun” formula. Certainly, these are easily rephrased, but is there a word for this besides simply poor writing style? Is there a grammatical rule I can refer these writers to? It’s pretty clearly colloquial for the region these writers are from, but I’d love to be able to give them a more accurate, professional response than “it just sounds bad.”

A. Although in some constructions (like yours) it is awkward, using the possessive (including pronouns) with a gerund is accepted grammar. Please see CMOS 16, 7.26, for a discussion and examples (e.g., “I won’t put up with him [or his] being denigrated”).