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Opinion

A Word, Please: Fused participles can suggest something the writer didn’t mean

Dictionary
A fused participle is an interesting quirk in the English language.
(File Photo)

Here’s something I bet you never knew was controversial: “I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me.”

Yes, language sticklers might have a problem with that, even though you need an advanced degree in English Rules That Aren’t Rules to understand why. Still, this form, called a “fused participle” by some, is an interesting quirk in the language.

The issue with this sentence is the word “you.” The writer could have easily used “your” in its place. That would have preempted any raised eyebrows.

But a lot of people would automatically opt for “you” here, creating a problem that’s best explained by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “From the middle of the 18th century to the present time,” the usage guide writes, “grammarians and other commentators have been baffled by the construction. They cannot parse it, they cannot explain it.”

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See, here’s the thing. In “I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me,” the object of the verb “appreciate” is the gerund “taking.” A gerund is just an “ing” form of a verb used as a noun, meaning it is a noun.

In “I appreciate your taking,” the sentence is grammatical because you have a noun, taking, as the object of the verb, which is how things are supposed to work. The thing being appreciated is the taking and the “your” in front of it is just a modifier: I appreciate your taking.

But if you change “your” to “you,” you change the grammar. Suddenly, there’s a different word functioning as the object of “appreciate”: the pronoun “you.” So in this sentence, you’re saying, “I appreciate you.” That would be fine if that’s what you meant. But when you’re a job seeker writing a note to a prospective employer, you probably don’t mean “I appreciate you and all you do and, in fact, I think I love you.”

It’s the taking of time you appreciate. “Taking” is the object of your verb. So “I appreciate you taking time” puts “taking” in an odd position. It’s no longer the object of the verb. “You” hogged up that spot. So now “taking” is just sort of hanging out there with no clear role to play. It’s like it’s a verb participle that’s just sort of stuck to, or fused to, the object “you.” Hence the term fused participle.

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Of course, we do see similar forms all the time. The difference lies in the intended meaning.

Consider: I saw Terry dancing. Chuck watched them walking. They applauded him reading. None of these uses a possessive like “Terry’s” or “their” or “his.” Yet they’re all correct assuming they capture what you meant to say.

You want to say you saw Terry and Terry was dancing. That’s different from saying you saw Terry’s dancing. You want to say Chuck watched those people who were walking. Chuck’s focus was on “them,” not “their walking.”

Same thing for “They applauded him.” He was the thing they applauded, not his reading per se. However, “I saw Terry’s dancing,” “Chuck watched their walking” and “They applauded his reading” are all fine if they capture what you meant to say.

Those are different from “I appreciate you taking,” which, as we saw above, suggests something you didn’t mean: “I appreciate you, baby.”

But though this form is ungrammatical, or at least grammatically inscrutable, it’s definitely idiomatic. That means it’s not wrong, per se. In fact, back in the 1700s, a lot of the leading thinkers on language insisted that the possessive form “your” would be wrong in “I appreciate your taking the time.” In the intervening centuries, that opinion has been replaced by the idea that “you” is wrong. A fused participle.

In fact, you can choose. But remember that if the “ing” form is the intended object of your verb, a possessive like “your” or “Chuck’s” or “their” in front of it is the safest bet.

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