Get ready for a can of worms, for we are about to discuss what Henry Fowler called fused participles.
Compare these two sentences:
1. She cannot tolerate a baby going without food. 2. She cannot tolerate a baby’s going without food.
Now what is it she cannot tolerate? A baby? Or the going without food?
Take a look at the verb cannot tolerate. It’s transitive, right? Yes, and it needs an object. That object must be a noun. So which noun completes the thought? The noun baby? Or the noun-gerund going without food?
The answer is quite obvious: She cannot tolerate the going without food. Fact is, from the statement, we can see that she is quite fond of babies and wants to protect them. But if we write baby going and not baby’s going, the word baby initially tells the reader what she cannot tolerate: She can’t tolerate the baby. But then the present participle ushers in the exactly opposite thought: She cannot tolerate the going without food, so she actually loves babies.
The two words baby going form what Henry Fowler called a fused participle. Together, as a unit, they would have to serve the noun role of direct object of cannot tolerate. He became downright apoplectic over the construction, describing it as “grammatically indefensible” and saying that “the words defy grammatical analysis.” New Fowler, p. 609.
A war of grammarians then broke out, Otto Jespersen saying that Fowler’s analysis “‘is a typical specimen of the method of what I call the instinctive grammatical moralizer.’” New Fowler, p. 609.
Wow, wordsmiths can really get testy.
Does everybody studying this discussion see what a fused participle is? A fused participle consists of a noun or pronoun followed by an ‑ing verb. The entire unit is then plopped down in a sentence to serve as a noun. We might call it a Noun Combo.
What Fowler found so objectionable, and I tend to agree with him, is that a fused participle does defy grammatical analysis. To make the structure work, we have to recognize the structure—Noun Combo—as grammatically unique and grammatically accurate. In that form, the entire unit will sometimes fit in the sentence and serve as a noun.
The problem with accepting this structure willy-nilly is this: It often not only defies grammatical analysis but directly contradicts what the writer is trying to say.
In other words, the fused participle sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. And meaning can shift dramatically, depending on whether the noun (or pronoun) appears in the possessive.
Understanding the Problem
Writers, therefore, should:
1. understand the problem 2. learn how to analyze the situation facing them 3. come up with the correct construction
Let’s look at another example. Suppose you go home for the weekend to visit mom and dad. Your room is just as you left it, complete with wall posters of the latest rock stars and sports figures. Mom likes it that way. You have a great weekend, going out Saturday night and seeing some old high-school friends.
Then, on Sunday, at the crack of noon, you awaken to a wonderful aroma: Mom is downstairs frying chicken. You leap out of bed, ready to meet the day, don your robe and slippers, go downstairs, head for the kitchen, and say to mom,
Like wow! What a great way to wake up! I smelled you frying chicken.
Now if your mom had Miss Hamrick as her English teacher, she’s likely to clean your clock with a spare frying pan. Look at what you said. Look at the three-part sentence. Recognize that the verb smelled is transitive and needs a direct object. I’ll put the subject in bold underlined, the verb in bold, and the direct object in bold italic:
I smelled you frying chicken.
Of course, if your mom has been frying chicken all morning, perhaps that’s the correct statement. But mom doesn’t like your grammar, for obvious reasons. Focus on the present-participial phrase frying chicken. In your statement, this phrase is perfectly happy to sit there and act as an adjective modifying the pronoun you. In fact, in your statement, that’s the function you’ve given to the phrase frying chicken. It’s an adjective phrase. The word you appears in the objective case and thus serves as the direct object of smelled.
Possessive Nouns or Possessive Case of Pronouns
But remember that the ‑ing verb can also act as a noun. It is then called a gerund. And maybe, just maybe, what you smelled was not mom but the frying of chicken. Thus, you need to get frying chicken to serve as the object of smelled. To make that happen, look at what you have to do:
I smelled YOUR frying chicken.
By switching the objective case you to the possessive case your, you now allow frying chicken to act as the noun—as the direct object of the transitive verb smelled. The possessive-case your then possesses that noun. The possessive-case your possesses the ‑ing phrase, that is, the gerund.
The above is a traditional grammatical analysis. And that analysis is what prompted Fowler to say that fused participles defy grammatical analysis. For to get the fused participle to act properly in the sentence, you have to treat it as a separate and legitimate noun form—a Noun Combo. In other words, the direct object of the sentence must be the entire phrase, you frying chicken. So with a fused participle, our sentence would look like this:
I smelled you frying chicken.
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