What's a fused participle — and is it really an error?

I saw you working hard.

I appreciate you working hard.

At a glance, these sentences seem grammatically identical. But in fact, the grammar of the second one is wildly controversial, with some experts insisting it’s an error called a “fused participle.”

The fused participle concept comes up most often in the sentence: “I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me.” Critics of this form say it should be: “I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me.” And that one-letter variation, “your” replacing “you,” makes all the difference in the world. But to understand how that changes the grammar, you need to zoom in on how all the parts work together in the sentence.

In “I saw you working hard,” the object of the verb “saw” is “you.” I saw you. The next word, “working,” is a verb participle functioning as a modifier — essentially an adjective. It may seem odd to classify a verb form as an adjective, but we use verb participles this way all the time: a cooking class, a walking stick, your thinking cap, growing pains, a hiking excursion. In all these examples, a verb participle is modifying a noun, meaning it’s working like an adjective. The participle in “you working” has the same role, even though it comes after the noun.

So when you say, “I saw you working,” you get a grammatical sentence with a verb (saw), followed by its object (you), followed by a modifier of that object (working).

But in “I appreciate you driving him home,” the object of the verb “appreciate” isn’t really “you.” You’re not saying, “I appreciate you as a person” or “I appreciate that you exist.” It’s the driving that you really appreciate. So “driving” is the true object of the verb “appreciate.” Yet the first word after “appreciate” isn’t “driving.” It’s “you.” Between the verb and its true object, there’s another word — “you” — just sitting there with no grammatical job to do. The participle “driving” is just kind of fused to “you” with no clear role. From a standpoint of pure grammar, it’s nonsensical. Here's the full story in my recent column.