fused participle

The progressive form of a verb (ending in -ing), in addition to its primary function, may serve as either a noun or an adjective, in which case it is called a gerund or a present participle, respectively. One often faces a choice between these two usages. For example, when a gerund is modified by a possessive pronoun or noun and appears as the object of a verb or preposition, the modifier may in some cases be replaced by its objective form. The gerund is thereby transformed into an adjectival participle, and the meaning of the sentence changes accordingly. Thus, I heard your crying becomes I heard you crying. As Brown observes, "In the use of participles and of verbal nouns, the leading word in sense, should always be made the leading or governing word in the construction." Thus, he favors the construction He was sensible to his strength's declining, in which he takes the gerund to be "the leading word in sense", but rejects the possessive in He felt his strength's declining, insisting on strength as the direct object and relegating declining to the role of attached adjective.

In some cases, the wrong choice results in nonsense, as illustrated by another of Brown's examples. The sentence He mentions Newton's writing of a commentary, though somewhat awkward, is preferable in his judgement to the alternative, He mentions Newton writing a commentary, which "though not uncommon, is still more objectionable because it makes the leading word in sense the adjunct in construction." In fact, the latter version defies grammatical analysis altogether, for Newton, which has the unmistakable form of a substantive, cannot be cast as the direct object here, as it is the writing and not the writer that is being mentioned.

The same problem is seen in the statement below.

We witnessed them being dragged off on ropes to their death, and could hear them being killed. *
Here, the second occurrence of them is unobjectionable as the direct object of hear. But while animals can be seen or heard, only events can be witnessed, and hence the direct object in the first clause must be the gerund being, and therefore them should be replaced by the possessive adjective their.

Fowler considered this error, which he termed the fused participle, to be an indefensible corruption of modern English. "It is perhaps beyond hope," he lamented, "for a generation that regards upon you giving as normal English to recover its hold on the truth that grammar matters." His discussion of the problem is based on a comparison of three statements:

1. Women having the vote share political power with men.
2. Women's having the vote reduces men's political power.
3. Women having the vote reduces men's political power.

In the first, the subject of the sentence is women, and having (the vote) is a true participle attached to women. In the second, the subject is the verbal noun or gerund having (the vote), and women's is a possessive case (i.e. an adjective) attached to that noun. The grammar in these two is normal. In the third, the subject is neither women (since reduces is singular), nor having (for if so, women would be left in the air without grammatical construction), but a compound notion formed by fusion of the noun women with the participle having. Participles so constructed, then, are called fused participles, as opposed to the true participle of No. 1 and the gerund of No. 2.

Although Fowler's logic is unassailable, his position has been met with considerable resistance. Jespersen, who was perhaps the first to respond, based his repudiation on the usual parade of exalted literary figures who had either stubbornly embraced or inadvertently committed the error in question, as if matters of logic were best decided by a majority vote. Similar evidence has been offered more recently by Gilman, who cites several noted 18th and 19th century grammarians who, he claims, actually preferred the fused participle to the gerund with possessive modifier. Gilman's discussion, however, is grossly misleading. For example, his characterization of Lowth's position as "distinctly hostile to the possessive case" must have been based on his description of the gerund as "the participle, with an article before it, and the preposition after it", for Lowth never addressed the issue of replacing the article with a noun or pronoun, possessive or otherwise. Similarly, although Brown did express ambivalence about verbal nouns in general, Gilman's claim that he opposed the use of the possessive with the gerund, and in particular, the suggestion that Brown approved of the fused participle, is clearly false, as shown by the examples cited earlier.

Garner has observed that "no one today doubts that Fowler overstated his case in calling fused participles `grammatically indefensible' and in never admitting an exception." Although this assessment fails to account for the opinion expressed here, it is not far from the truth. The standard defense appeals to the popular principle that a grammatical error should be excused if it cannot be corrected with a few key strokes. In particular, the modern experts would insist, when a participle is fused to a substantive phrase that cannot readily be coerced to the possessive case, the result must be tolerated. Thus, among the exceptions listed by Garner we find He regretted some of them being left out in the rain, which he excuses simply because the phrase some of them has no natural possessive form, even though the sentence could be easily improved by recasting it as He regretted that some of them were left out in the rain. Similarly, Bernstein argues that "some fused participles will simply have to remain fused", including such unwieldy constructions as the following, which Fowler would have found to be not only an offense against grammar, but a threat to his pastime of ridiculing the Germans for their ponderous syntax:

We have been unable to find any trace of anyone answering this description having been in this country recently.

If there is any agreement that can be reached on this issue, it might be that grammar does matter to the extent that the gerund with possessive modifier should be favored over the fused participle, as Garner allows, "whenever it is not unidiomatic or unnatural." But of course, even this conciliatory position will not go unchallenged. Wilson, for one, argues that "for some time now ... the objective case has also been Standard before gerunds, although Formal writing may use a bit more genitive with pronouns than it does with nouns. Native speakers can now trust their ears." This is clearly a formula for disaster—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for example, is undeniably a native speaker:

Now, is it possible that the main thing is catching Saddam Hussein first? Clearly people who are not certain that he is dead or gone or not coming back are concerned ... we worry about them being intimidated. *
So is his second in command, but under the headline "Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz Speaks", we find this quotation:
And it is a fact of history that the Philippines asked us to leave and I don t see a prospect of them wanting us back, so that's an academic subject. *
The New York Times has apparently interpreted this pattern as firm DoD policy:
The defense secretary is meeting with commanders on U.S.-run prisons. "We care about the detainees being treated right," he said.
Of course, in this instance Mr. Rumsfeld could just as easily have been given the benefit of the doubt with "detainees'", but if the Times was committed to its interpretation, then perhaps the proper course was "detainees [sic]".