More Arcane Grammar

Fused Participles

Participle fusion, much like thermonuclear fusion, is a subject too widely dreaded to be approached lightly.

~ William Safire

If you don’t know what a fused participle is, you can chalk it up to one of those grammar “rules” that really isn’t. Like:

Never split an infinitive.

Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Never start a sentence with a conjunction.

Back in the day, 1906 to be exact, Henry Fowler decided that sentences like the following are grammatically incorrect.

  •               He approved of Robert taking the job.
  •               Do you mind me asking a question?
  •               The neighbors hated my dog barking at the FedEx truck.

Those “ing” words look like verbs but function in these sentences as nouns—or more precisely—gerunds. Fowler and others argued that fusing the participle—taking, asking. barking—with the noun/pronoun—Robert, me, dog—creates a hybrid noun. And his problem with that? Grammarians couldn’t parse –er–diagram the sentence. That doesn’t mean the rest of us couldn’t understand it.

The solution, in each of these examples is simple. Replace the noun or pronoun preceding the participle with a possessive form—or a genitive gerund. Voila:

  •               He approved of Robert’s taking the job.

This is also a clarification because the approval is not necessarily of Robert but of the fact that’s taking a particular job.

  •               Do you mind my asking a question?

Using the possessive pronoun clarifies that the concern is not for the individual but for their action—asking a question.

  •               The neighbors hated my dog’s barking at the FedEx truck.

The neighbors did not hate the dog—only that he barked every time a certain delivery truck showed up.

   Most of the time most of us—even editors—might not red flag these fused participles. We intuitively understand what the speaker intends. In formal writing, however, I recommend taking the time to analyze a sentence and answer this question to avoid confusion. Click To Tweet

What’s your focus—the person or the action?

*On Language; Diffuse Those Participles

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