In 1906 Henry Watson Fowler coined the term fused participle to describe “an extraordinary participle, fused into one notion with the noun” (117). He also condemned it as ungrammatical. If I said, “I dislike the man standing in the middle of the street,” you might wonder if I dislike the man himself or the fact that he is standing in the middle of the street. The phrase “man standing” is a fused participle, and it makes the sentence unclear. This post explains what fused participles are and how to fix them.
What Are Participles?
Participles are verbs that have become adjectives. Imagine the sun rising over the Painted Desert. In that sentence, “rising” and “Painted” are participles. Verbs can also become nouns, and when they do they’re called gerunds. If I said, “I just saw a flying pig!” you might reasonably respond, “Flying is not something a pig can do.” In the first sentence, “flying” is a participle that modifies “pig,” but in the second it is a gerund that forms the subject of the sentence.
What’s the Problem and How Should You Fix It?
The title of this post provides an example of the problem. The title is asking what’s wrong with my act of writing, not with me as a person. But “writing” is fused with “me,” which creates an awkward hybrid noun meaning “the writing done by me.” For Fowler and many other usage experts, asking “What’s wrong with me writing this title?” is much like saying “Read me post!”—fine for the post-writing pirate but no one else. The word “writing” is a gerund, meaning that it works as a noun. Like any noun, it needs an adjective to modify it. And so fixing many fused participles is as simple as making the subject of the gerund possessive. “What’s wrong with my writing this title?” is a perfectly grammatical sentence. As Claire Kehrwald Cook argues, if the subject of the gerund can be made possessive without awkwardness, it should be (191).
What about When the Possessive Won’t Work?
If the possessive is awkward, you can always rephrase. For example, long fused participles that mislead readers often can’t be fixed with the possessive. Wilson Follett gives an example: “What the Justice feared was the Constitution of the United States becoming a shield for the criminal” (136). The sentence initially seems to be saying that the justice feared the Constitution itself. It is only when the reader finally lands on “becoming” that the sense is revealed. However, making “United States” possessive would be awkward—the Constitution, not the United States, is the subject of the gerund “becoming.” Follett suggests rephrasing: “What the Justice feared was that the Constitution of the United States would become a shield for the criminal.”
Cook points out that when the subject of the gerund is “heavily modified, compound, abstract, or not capable of showing possession, the possessive case is impossible.” She gives an example of a heavily modified subject: “He objected to the man who lives next door putting up a fence” (190). The long fused participle (“the man who lives next door putting”) makes the sentence difficult to read. There’s no good way to make “the man who lives next door” possessive, but rephrasing the sentence is easy. “He objected to the fence his neighbor is putting up.”
In addition, some usage guides maintain that inanimate objects cannot show possession. And so in a sentence like “The house sinking is really starting to become a problem,” some might advise against making “house” possessive and implying that the sinking belongs to the house. Even if you are generally fine with attributing possession to inanimate things (as I am), the phrase “house’s sinking” might create ambiguity. For instance, if read aloud it seems to refer to multiple houses.
To Fuse or Not to Fuse
The fused participle is now ubiquitous, and many writers like the compactness of expression it allows. But if you use it, be sure that you aren’t introducing ambiguity into your writing. Purchasing concision at the expense of clarity usually isn’t worth it. Now that you know about fused participles, aren’t you annoyed with me ending the post like this?
Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin Harcout, 1985.
Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Hill and Wang, 1998.
Fowler, Henry Watson. The King’s English. 1906. Clarendon Press, 1922. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/kingsenglish00fowliala.
Published 19 June 2020