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.")
-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.