06/04/07 - prepositions

In today's excerpt - prepositions:

"[O]ne of the all-time great grammatical shibboleths [is] that when writing a sentence or a clause you must not ... make a preposition the last word you put in. This notion apparently originated with the poet John Dryden, who in a 1672 work quoted Ben Jonson's line 'The bodies that these souls were frighted from', and commented: 'The Preposition at the end of a sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observ'd in my own writings.' Probably, Dryden based his stand on two foundations. First, prepositions in Latin never appear at the end of a sentence, not surprising since praepositio is Latin for something that 'comes before.' Second, a principle of composition that's as valid in the twenty-first century as it was in the seventeenth holds that, whenever possible sentences should end strongly—and prepositions as necessary as they undeniably are, are usually more of a whimper than a bang.

"Whatever its origin, the ban found favor with prescriptivists through the centuries, including Edward Gibbon; John Ruskin, who in an entire book (Seven Lamps) concluded a sentence with a preposition precisely one time; Lily Tomlin's officious Ernestine, the telephone operator, who asked, 'Is this the party to whom I am speaking?'; and my mother-in-law Marge Simeone, who is prone to saying things like 'In which car are we going?'... [B]ut [this rule] was always a bit suspect. It was blown out of the water by [Henry] Fowler, who wrote in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 'Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are 'inelegant' are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers, except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards.' Fowler then gave twenty-four examples of the 'rule' being broken by such writers as Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pepys, Swift, Defoe, Burke, Kipling and the authors of the King James Bible. ... When the preposition occurs in a phrasal verb, the transposition task can be close to impossible. To 'fix' a phrasal-verb-concluding sentence like 'I'm turning in', you'd have to come up with something like 'Turning in I am', which not even Yoda from Star Wars could say with a straight face.

"To anyone still unconvinced, I offer two small anecdotes, in reverse order of familiarity.

"1. Winston Churchill, when corrected for violating this rule, supposedly replied, 'That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.'

"2. A guy from South Philadelphia, on vacation in London, asks a bowler-hatted gent, 'Where's the subway at?' The Londoner replies, 'Don't you Yanks realize that it's poor English to end a sentence with a preposition?' To which the South Philly guy says, 'Okay, where's the subway at, asshole?' "


Ben Yagoda


When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse


Broadway Books


Copyright 2007 by Ben Yagoda


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