Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Justice Antonin Scalia reverses himself on the fused participle

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

We will come to sodomy in a moment. To stagger together through today's column about grammatical possessiveness, you and I must agree on the difference between a gerund and a participle.

Take the word "dancing." It starts out as a form of a verb: "Look, Ma, I'm dancing!" When that word is used as an adjective to modify a noun -- "look at that dancing bear!" -- it's called a participle.

But when the same word is used as a noun -- "I see the bear, and its dancing isn't so hot" -- then the word is classified as a gerund. (From the Latin gerere, "to bear, to carry," because the gerund, though a noun, seems to bear the action of a verb.)

We give the same word these different names to tell us what it's doing and what its grammatical needs are. Two great grammarians had a titanic spat in the 1920s over the use of the possessive in this sentence: "Women having the vote reduces men's political power." H.W. Fowler derided what he called "the fused participle" as "grammatically indefensible" and said it should be "women's having"; Otto Jespersen cited famous usages, urged dropping the possessive and called Fowler a "grammatical moralizer."

Comes now Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with the latest manifestation of this struggle. An Associated Press account of his stinging dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the court struck down that state's anti-sodomy law, quoted Scalia out of context as writing, "I have nothing against homosexuals," which seemed condescending. His entire sentence, though, was not: "I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means."

Note the lack of apostrophes after homosexuals and group to indicate possession; Fowler would have condemned that as a "fused participle." Such loosey-goosey usage from the conservative Scalia, of all people?

"When I composed the passage in question," the justice informs me, "I pondered for some time whether I should be perfectly grammatical and write `I have nothing against homosexuals', or any other group's, promoting their agenda,' etc. The object of the preposition `against,' after all, is not `homosexuals who are promoting,' but rather `the promoting of (in the sense of by) homosexuals.'

"I have tried to be rigorously consistent in using the possessive before the participle," Scalia notes, "when it is the action, rather than the actor, that is the object of the verb or preposition (or, for that matter, the subject of the sentence)."

But what about his passage in Lawrence, in which he failed to follow Fowler and fused the participle?

"I concluded that because of the intervening phrase `or any other group,' writing homosexuals' -- with the apostrophe indicating possession -- (and hence `any other group's') would violate what is perhaps the first rule of English usage: that no construction should call attention to its own grammatical correctness. Finding no other formulation that could make the point in quite the way I wanted, I decided to be ungrammatical instead of pedantic."

But his attempt to be a regular guy backfired. In a jocular tone, Scalia observes: "God -- whom I believe to be a strict grammarian as well as an Englishman -- has punished me. The misquotation would have been more difficult to engineer had there been an apostrophe after `homosexuals.' I am convinced that in this instance the AP has been (unwittingly, I am sure) the flagellum Dei to recall me from my populist, illiterate wandering. (You will note that I did not say `from me wandering.')"

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