Mighty Red Pen

August 26, 2010

Prepositions: Nothing to be afraid of

Filed under: Grammar goddess — mighty red pen @ 6:09 pm
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I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve softened my approach to language since I started this blog nearly four years ago. I’ve also learned a lot about the grammar and language “rules” that I held near and dear for a long time. From the moment I cracked open Woe Is I and really began to immerse myself in the conversation, I began to learn more about and really appreciate the beautiful flexibility of the English language. (Over at You Don’t Say, John McIntyre shares a similar sentiment.)

Most style guides I’ve read in the past few years have the requisite chapters refuting certain language myths, such as “Thou Shalt Not Split Infinitives” (often citing the obligatory example “to boldly go” from Star Trek) or “Thou Shalt Not End a Sentence in a Preposition” (again, often citing the obligatory “arrant pedantry” quote commonly attributed to Winston Churchill). So I get it. And it seems that most of us who participate in this conversation daily get it. Here’s a (by no means exhaustive) sampling regarding not ending sentences with prepositions:

From Garner’s Modern American Usage: “The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which the preposition  was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with. . . . If the superstition is a “rule” at all, it is a rule of rhetoric and not of grammar, the idea being to end sentences with strong words that drive a point home. That principle is sound, of course, but not to the extent of meriting lockstep adherence or flouting established idiom.”

From Chicago Manual of Style: “The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with a prepositions is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction. . . . A sentence that ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition.”

From The American Heritage Dictionary: “It was John Dryden who first promulgated the doctrine that a preposition may not be used at the end of a sentence, probably on the basis of specious analogy to Latin. Grammarians in the 18th century refined the doctrine, and the rule has since become one of the most venerated maxims of schoolroom grammar. . . . Efforts to rewrite such sentences to place the preposition elsewhere can have stilted and even comical results.”

From Fowler’s Modern English Usage: “It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern . . . One of its chief supports is the fact that Dryden, an acknowledged master of English prose, went through all his prefaces contriving away the final prepositions that he had been guilty of in his first editions.”

You can find more from Grammar Girl, Grammarphobia, and Martha Brockenbrough.

So why do so many people not get it? The same day I read June Casagrande’s chapter in Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, I spotted this on a comment board I was reading:

I gave the commenter credit for not blasting the other commenter, Grammar Nazi style, but I had to wonder: Why does this misinformation persist?

I talked it over with Mister MRP who, as you know, is an English teacher. He said that although he encourages his students to consider carefully whether to split the infinitive or to end with the preposition, he doesn’t outright banish these from student writing. But he could cite colleagues that do. Are English teachers to blame?

2 Comments »

  1. What an interesting post! Thanks for the insights.

    I don’t think I ever had an English teacher tell me to never end a sentence in a a preposition, despite majoring in English in college. It does seem that most English teachers have their writing pet peeves, most of which are discretionary and stylistic but in their opinions lead to better writing. I had one professor who nearly had a conniption fit if a student began a sentence with “There are . . .” in a paper. I understand that it’s not that hard to find a better start to a sentence, but the violence with which she opposed “There are” was almost comical.

    That said, I think it often looks much nicer to not end with a preposition, unless it produces a completely absurd-sounding result. People when they speak end in prepositions all the time. To carefully try to avoid ending spoken sentences with prepositions would sound hilariously affected.

    Comment by Kristen — August 27, 2010 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

  2. Another one is “Thou shalt not use ‘which’ with a restrictive relative clause”. Arnold Zwicky at Language Log calls them “zombie rules”, but I don’t know if anyone has a good explanation as to why they are so persistent.

    Comment by goofy — August 30, 2010 @ 10:53 am | Reply


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