Friday, January 9, 2009

The Newspaper Apocalypse Officially Begins — In My Living Room

For some time now, people have been predicting the end of newspapers. Until yesterday, it was all just speculation. But as of 6:06 p.m. last night, it’s official. Newspapers are dead. A shocking and heretofore unheard-of event has heralded their certain demise and stands irrefutably as the seventh sign of the newspaper apocalypse: I returned a reader’s phone call.

Until now, such an event was unthinkable. I learned years ago, while working as a community newspaper reporter, that any reader who calls to talk to you is a reader you don’t want to talk to. Either he’s calling to accuse you of being in the pocket of developers who want to build a Jiffy Lube in his neighborhood or he’s calling to demand you write a feature story about his granddaughter’s finally mastering “Chopsticks” on the piano.

Of course, as a reporter, I was required to play dumb — to disguise my knowledge that all readers’ calls were things to be 1. dodged and 2. never, ever returned. So in that job I was obliged to sometimes answer the phone. Sometimes I even listened to my voice mail.


But I’m not a staff reporter anymore. I’m a columnist, with all the rights and privileges that come with not having a desk in a newspaper office or a published phone number or a 401K plan. You want to talk to me about my latest column about dangling participles? Send an e-mail. Maybe I’ll write back. (I won’t, but that’s another story.)

So yesterday, there was a palpable reaction in my gag reflex when I received the following e-mail from an editor of one of the papers in which my grammar column runs: “A local English teacher has a grammar question for you, but he refuses to use computers or e-mail. He asks that you call him at …”

All the old righteous reporter indignation came rushing back. “We’re running a newspaper here, pal, not a personal information retrieval service. I’m not your fact valet. Get a book. Kiss my grits.” And so on.

Then, without thinking or explanation, as if suddenly possessed by a powerful evil spirit, I watched my own right hand reach for the telephone and dial the man’s number.

The man sounded (brace yourself for a big surprise) old. He was looking for an answer to a question that had plagued him since he was in school (no doubt studying alchemy or the medical application of leeches).

Why, he wanted to know, was he taught it’s right to say “I appreciate your meeting with me” as opposed to “I appreciate you meeting with me”?

That’s when the evil supernatural forces at work unleashed their full wrath. I found myself not just wanting to help, but actually (shudder) enjoying the conversation.

I gave him a speech about both being acceptable (he already understood that) before getting to the heart of his question: What, exactly, is the difference and why do some people consider the one with "your" superior to the one with "you"? I told him that the answer hinges on the question: Is your –ing word a gerund or is it a participle?

In “I saw him walking,” the object of the verb “saw” is the pronoun “him.” So what’s that “walking” doing there? It’s a participle. Participles are modifiers. This one is modifying the pronoun “him.”

Compare that to “I saw his walking.” Here, the object of the verb – the thing being seen – is the walking. “His” is not the object. It’s modifying the object “walking.” So because “walking” is working as a noun, it’s a gerund. (
Obviously, the speaker's intention is crucial here. And, FYI, this construction is often called the "possessive with gerund.")

Again:

-ing form as noun = gerund
-ing form as modifier = participle

The people who oppose "I appreciate you meeting with me" sometimes call it a fused participle. In that sentence, the speaker likely means that he appreciates the act — the meeting. So, according to this view, the whole gerund/participal distinction is violated. If "meeting" is intended as a thing and not a modifier, then what's that "you" doing in there? It's like saying, "I enjoy ham salami." Again, that's just the hardliners' line. Both forms really are acceptable.

I’ve written a bit about this issue before, but I’d never really had the chance to talk to someone about the mechanics. I was enjoying it. I felt so dirty.

The man was respectful, grateful, and hanging on my every word. He thanked me for indulging what he suspected was an uncommon request and perhaps an imposition. That led to the question: How often, he wanted to know, did I talk to readers on the phone to answer questions like these?

“There’ve been a number of times over the years that editors have e-mailed me to ask me to call readers,” I told him. “Until today, I had never returned one of those phone calls. Not ever.”

He laughed: “Why me? Why now?”

Rather than admit that my body had been possessed by the underworld’s most accommodating demon, I let the demon do the talking: “Well, you know, I used to have this attitude that I didn’t have to provide that kind of service. But newspapers are in trouble. Big trouble. And I guess I just figured that, if I can provide an extra layer of value to a reader, maybe I should.”

Mark January 8 on your calendar. Because the day I’m so afraid for the future of newspapers that I actually return a reader’s call is the day newspapers are officially toast.

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8 comments:

Dawn Colclasure said...

Take heart. That very act just may mean more readers for YOU. Even if...not for newspapers...

June Casagrande said...

Good point. Readers are all up for grabs now, aren't they? I just hope the bulk of them land someplace where they're getting reliable information and not the kind of partisan misinformation that's becoming all too common these days.

. said...

I don't remember my gerunds from my participles, or even my gerbils from my precipitates, but I find that common sense helps when deciding what "I appreciate you/your meeting with me" means: What exactly is being appreciated? The act of meeting, or the person doing the meeting? Choose you/your accordingly.

June Casagrande said...

Gerbils are small, furry creatures, delicious in their own way.

Seriously, though, you nailed it. All that terminology is really just about meaning. The "object," exactly as you said, is the thing being appreciated. That's the beauty of grammar -- at its heart, language really just about meaning, and you don't need to be a precipitate gerbil to understand it.

Neal Whitman said...

It's true that it depends on what is being appreciated, the act or the person. But even if you're just talking about the "appreciate the person" reading, it's not as simple as a participle modifying a noun. I used to think it was, until I took some syntax classes and learned about the diagnostics I discuss below. (You can find a good presentation of them in Huddleston & Pullum's Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, at p. 1220 or thereabouts.)

We've been using the verb "resent", but it'll be easier to illustrate the point with the verb "catch". "Catch" is a verb that doesn't allow the possessive form: You can't say *"I caught {the guy's / his} stealing my lunch from the break room fridge," because you can't catch an action. On the other hand, if you say, "I caught the guy stealing my lunch from the break room fridge," you could have two readings: you caught the guy in the act of stealing your lunch, or you caught the guy who was stealing your lunch at some undetermined time (maybe in the act, maybe not). The "caught the guy who was stealing" reading is analyzable as a participial phrase modifying "guy". But if that's the case, then what's the analysis of the "in the act" reading?

Another reason the "in the act" reading is probably not a participle modifying a noun is that when you say, "I caught him stealing my lunch," you only get (uh, you get *only*) the "in the act" reading.

Yet another reason the "in the act" reading is not a participle modifying a noun: If it were, you'd expect to be able to say it as "The guy stealing my lunch was caught", but the only reading you get here is the "at any old time" reading. (And you can't say *"He stealing my lunch was caught" at all.) Instead, the only way to passivize the "in the act" reading is to say "{The guy / He} was caught stealing my lunch."

So how to analyze the "at any old time" reading for "catch", or the "resent the action" reading for "resent him stealing my lunch" or other verbs? Take the verb as something that syntactically requires a direct object and a participle or gerund (it doesn't matter which one you call it), and semantically interprets the direct object and participle/gerund as a proposition.

June Casagrande said...

Hmm. That's really interesting. I'll need to think on it. Question: Do you have any other sources on that? That is, have you come across this interpretation by any other experts? I ask because:

1. You can take the girl out of the journalism job but you can't take the journalism job out of the girl.

2. I sometimes suspect that Pullum's positions are influenced by self-serving motives (a sort of Mary-Mary-quite-contrary approach to always having to prove other people wrong).

So do you know of anyone else who's argued the same position?

Neal Whitman said...

I believe there's consensus on the idea that "resent him doing something" has "him" and "doing something" forming a kind of tenseless clause, and not a noun phrase modified by a participle, though the specifics of the analysis vary. The first other source I have to hand that addresses the issue is Huddleston's 1984 "Introduction to the Grammar of English" (Cambridge, 18 years prior to his and Pullum's grammar).

Pullum's personality may be as you say; I know he emphasizes that aspect of it on Language Log. But academically, Pullum is very straightforward, backing up his claims with lots of data, such as the kind of facts I mentioned in the last comment. And you can consider them on their own, since as a native speaker of English you can verify (or dispute) their truth. Whether or not you accept the analysis I described, I think you'll agree that there's more going on in this construction than a noun modified by a participle, given the two readings of "I caught the guy stealing my lunch."

One more kind of commonly cited data that I failed to mention last time: You can say things like "I resent there being a party in my absence", but you can't really say that "being a party" is modifying "there."

June Casagrande said...

Ah, good answers to all. Thank you!

And, though I meant what I said, I wasn't ragging on Pullum quite as much as it may have sounded. My biggest issue has more to do with academics in general than with him in particular. Academics tend to be more interested in anomalies than in standard ways of seeing things. Understandable (especially when you think about how on earth one might come up with a dissertation topic) but it can create problems.

A recent piece by Stephen Pinker in the NY Times comes to mind. Shootin' from memory here, the piece was about the biology of personality. All fascinating stuff, yadda yadda. But in the process of lauding the nature side of nature vs. nurture, he pretty much discounted the stuff that, in his field, is really important. More important than he'd like to admit.

Everyone knows that if you take twins and keep all things equal except that you subject one to repeated abuse, it's going to affect the abusee. The vast majority of applied psychology deals with principles that simple. But Pinker got so lost in the fascination/glory of scientific inquiry, he pretty much denied that environment could be a factor at all (or, at the very least, he discounted its importance).

That's bad enough, but add to that the fact that the nurture stuff is the center of monumental real-world needs: Most of the desperately messed-up people in the world are messed up due to environment and not biology. (Trust me. I spent five years sitting in A.A. meetings. I know a lot of people whose psychological handicaps are debilitating and I know their stories.) Again, I'm not talking all. But many.

So this hot pursuit of "a new truth" becomes not just masturbatory but a disservice to real-world needs. (Like the doctors researching very rare and not-too-serious diseases and being lauded by their peers while children lose limbs in hospitals because not enough doctors volunteer to work with the poor.)

Stuff like that.

Wow. I went off, huh? In that mess, I hope you get my point: I think that scholarship is often marred by self-serving motives and glory seeking. I 'spose you could say I'm a little hypersensitive to it.

One more thought before I'm off to bed. This one paraphrased from Homer Simpson: "Oh, you can use statistics to prove anything. Seventy-eight percent of all people know that."

: )

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