Above the Law

As you doubtless know, verbs have two forms we call participles. The past participle usually ends in -ed. (Exceptions occur with irregular verbs, such as swim>swam>swum –the last being the past participle.) The verb form ending in -ing is called the present participle, and its use brings up a tricky grammatical topic concerning when to use a possessive noun in front of it. How tricky? As writing guru William Safire put it in the New York Times: “Participle fusion, much like thermonuclear fusion, is a subject too widely dreaded to be approached lightly.”

The problem derives from how the -ing form is being used in the sentence. It can be used as a verb, of course {Ryan has been filibustering the bill for hours}. It can also serve as an adjective {The filibustering procedure has been used in the Senate since 1837}. Or it can be used as a noun {Political junkies just love filibustering}. When it’s used as a noun, it’s called a gerund.

Now what if there’s a noun in front of that gerund? Strictly speaking, it should usually be possessive {Some Democrats were less enamored of Ryan’s filibustering} {Ryan’s filibustering irked some Democrats}. Yet many writers would use Ryan filibustering in those instances. And some grammarians would denounce those writers’ foisting a “fused participle” on their readers. Would they say, “I hate my friend being out of work”? One hopes not.

H.W. Fowler gave the name “fused participle” to a participle that is (1) used as a noun (i.e., a gerund), and (2) preceded by a noun or pronoun not in the possessive case — thus Me going home made her sad rather than the preferred My going home made her sad.

When the -ing participle is in the predicate, it takes a possessive subject if it’s the direct object {I heard Lori’s singing (singing is the direct object)} {I heard Lori singing (Lori is the direct object, so no possessive)}. When the -ing participle follows a preposition, the possessive is often optional {the problem with children (or children’s) taking field trips is liability insurance}.

So it comes down to this: in educated English — or edited English — there is a preference for possessives before gerunds where they are idiomatically possible:

  • My (not me) carrying my own bags feels most natural.
  • She resented their (not them) denigrating her family.
  • Do you mind my (not me) borrowing this book?
  • Months may pass without his (not him) feeling the need to write a letter.
  • Women’s (not women) having the vote advanced social justice.
  • What’s the use of my (not me) objecting?
  • I favor your (not you) curtailing this practice.
  • My (not me) splashing in the puddles made them laugh.

But there are exceptions — sentences in which idiom simply demands that a participle be fused, or else the sentence rewritten altogether. Let’s not assume a rewrite. Respected usage commentators accept fused participles such as these:

  • The likelihood of that happening is nil.
  • He frequently felt a chance of this happening.
  • He would not hear of Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds leaving their house.
  • The authorities haven’t found anyone answering this description having entered the country.
  • He disapproved of politicians still in their prime writing memoirs.
  • What are the odds against that happening?

If you don’t mind my saying so — and, frankly, I wouldn’t appreciate your minding — it’s a difficult subject that requires one’s having a finely tuned ear. Attentive readers won’t appreciate your fusing participles with reckless abandon.
 
Sources:
Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer 199-203 (1965).
Bergen & Cornelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage 247-48 (1957).
Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide 157-59 (1966).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 383 (3d ed. 2009).
The Chicago Manual of Style 357 (16th ed. 2010).
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 205-08 (1926).
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 215-18, 225-26 (Ernest Gowers ed., 2d ed. 1965).
Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage 124-29 (1982).
Bernice Randall, Webster’s New World Guide to Current American Usage 221-22 (1988).

Thanks to J. Alan Holman for suggesting this topic.

Bryan A. Garner, President of LawProse Inc., is the most prolific CLE presenter in the U.S., having trained more than 150,000 lawyers and judges. His book — most prominently Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage — have been cited as authority by every state and federal appellate court, including the highest. For more about him, go to www.lawprose.org. To follow him on Twitter: @bryanagarner.

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