Defusing the Fused Participle

Okay, let’s start with a show of hands. Who out there remembers what a direct object is?

Hmm...about what I expected. It is always the same five people in the back row, isn’t it? It seems a brief refresher lesson is in order, then.

In a sentence, a direct object is a noun phrase or pronoun that receives the action of a verb; it is the thing that is acted upon. Specifically, the type of verb used is called a transitive verb, because it contains the idea of transferring action. Many verbs can act as either transitive or intransitive verbs, depending on the circumstances. Let’s see some examples to make this all clear:

  • “I threw the ball.” Here, threw is a transitive verb and ball is the direct object—the item thrown.
  • “Helen bought six fish and a pint of vanilla ice cream.” The transitive verb is bought, of course. Here, we have a compound direct object: fish and pint are both targets of the action.
  • “Dan played on the carpet with his year-old daughter.” Trick question! The verb played is not transitive in this sentence, so there is no direct object. Instead, we have two prepositional phrases following the verb. Of course, in a different sentence (“Dan played the bassoon with skill and grace,” for instance) the word played can be a transitive verb; in that example, bassoon would be the direct object.

The Next Piece of the Puzzle

Now that we are all on the same page concerning transitive verbs and direct objects, we are ready to look at the real topic of this essay. What would you make of the sentence, “I hate Jim singing loudly in the shower”?

“Hate” is obviously a transitive verb here, but it is perplexing to figure out what the direct object might be. Perhaps Jim? Let’s try eliminating all the unnecessary words in the sentence and see what happens. Condensing the sentence to “I hate Jim” seems a rather harsh judgment and not a good summary of the idea expressed by the full sentence.

Could “singing” be the direct object, then? As used in this sentence, “singing” is an odd word. It is called a gerund, a form of a verb acting as if it were a noun. Most often when we add the “–ing” suffix to a verb, we get a present participle, which acts like an adjective. For example, “We were entranced by the singing waiters at the new Italian bistro.” But a gerund is also perfectly acceptable in English grammar. If we cut our test sentence down to “I hate singing,” that seems to better reflect the intended meaning. “Singing” is the legitimate direct object.

What, then, are we to make of the word Jim? Could it be an adjective, modifying “singing”? Not likely. Proper nouns can function as adjectives, but all the examples I can find only work when the proper noun determines the time or season for the related noun: Christmas tree, March Madness, Sunday newspaper, Halloween candy, and so forth. So much for Jim. It is not an adjective here.

The Solution Revealed

The great lexicographer H. W. Fowler (1858–1933), author of the classic Dictionary of Modern English Usage, was particularly vexed by this construction, which he named the fused participle. He argued that the whole dilemma boils down to a grammatical error: the word that was not the gerund should be a possessive. Thus, our sentence would transform into “I hate Jim’s singing loudly in the shower.”

If sentence diagramming were still in common use, we would parse the sentence something like this:

I hate Jim’s singing loudly in the shower

Fowler’s animus against the fused particle shows the error was common over a century ago. It still flourishes in casual conversation today. Few people would see anything wrong with “Do you mind me asking a question?” or “We appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns” in an informal setting. However, if you are writing professional website content, you will want to adhere to the best practices for grammar. That means avoiding the fused participle whenever possible.

And yet, let’s look at some actual excerpts of website content I have seen over the past several months:

  • “Instead of us trying to convince you with our resumes, we’ll let our work speak for us.”
  • “Although you may try asking the arresting officers for information, the likelihood of them answering is pretty slim (even if they do know the answers).”
  • “The terms in which you and the tenant agreed upon included you receiving royalties from what they sell.”
  • “Creating this point of contact early on will allow things to get done without you having to deal with every little issue that comes along.”
  • “People with physical handicaps may worry that disclosing a disability during the application process could result in them not getting the job—or even an interview.”
  • “Passengers can slip and fall or get body parts trapped within the elevator or escalator, resulting in them suffering serious injuries or death.”
  • “If you have been exposed to certain substances at work, especially over the course of many years, your risk of getting cancer may have increased without you even realizing it.”

Each one of those sentences has a fused participle. Now that you are alert to them, you may wince when you spot one.

Can Fused Participles Always Be Avoided?

Is it possible that there is no way to eliminate a fused participle? I might say the probability of that happening is near zero. Unfortunately, “The probability of that happening is near zero” is a classic example of a sentence containing a fused participle that cannot easily be rewritten. Any changes you might make will sacrifice some of the clarity of the idiom, or will make the grammar more convoluted, or will leave the reader puzzling over tortured syntax.

Almost all rules of English have exceptions. So here’s my final rule for fused participles: Avoid the fused participle, except when your effort to eliminate one would interfere with your readers’ comprehension. That is pretty much the rule of thumb we have been applying all along. Write as best as you can according to the rules of English as you understand them. Good will—and purging the worst mistakes from your writing—will go a long way toward building rapport with your readers and gaining their trust in your brand.

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