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prepositions

Grammar myths #1: is it wrong to end a sentence with a preposition?

Stranded prepositions are nothing to fret about

There are numerous myths relating to grammatical dos and don’ts, many of which were drummed into us at school. The one that stubbornly refuses to budge from my mind is the diktat ‘never begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but’. And why not, pray?*

Some of these groundless rules (termed ‘fetishes’ by Henry Fowler in 1926) have a long history. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, some notable writers (aka Latin-obsessed 17th century introverts) tried to make English grammar conform to that of Latin – hence the veto on split infinitives and also the ruling against the ending of a sentence with a preposition (also called stranding or deferring a preposition).

These and other language myths are amazingly persistent, though, so who you gonna call? Oxford’s Myth Debunkers, of course! To kick off this occasional series, let’s try to zap the one about stranded prepositions and lay it to rest once and for all.

A prepositional primer

First, a quick recap of the basics:

  • A preposition is a word such as with, by, on, in, at, to, or about.
  • Prepositions are a class of word used to express the relationship between the elements of a sentence or clause.
  • A preposition connects a verb, noun, or adjective to a noun or pronoun and is typically, but not always, found before the noun or pronoun in a sentence or clause. For example:
Paul ran along the street.
verb preposition noun
He’s angry with us.
adjective preposition pronoun
  • The noun or pronoun that follows the preposition forms a ‘prepositional object’ (or complement).  You should therefore use pronouns in the objective (for instance, me, her, him, us) rather than the subjective form (I, she, he, we).
  • The relationship between the preposition and the other elements can describe:
    – time (we’re meeting him on Tuesday)
    – the way in which something is done (I went to Milan by train)
    – place or position (the cat was under the table; we met at the station)
    – possession (a friend of mine)
    – purpose (the operation was done for the best of reasons)

Back to the Latin-obsessed 17th century introverts…

The word ‘preposition’ ultimately derives from Latin prae ‘before’ and ponere ’to place’. In Latin grammar, the rule is that a preposition should always precede the prepositional object that it is linked with: it is never placed after it. According to a number of other authorities, it was the dramatist John Dryden in 1672 who was the first person to criticize a piece of English writing (by Ben Jonson) for placing a preposition at the end of a clause instead of before the noun or pronoun to which it was linked.

This prohibition was taken up by grammarians and teachers in the next two centuries and became very tenacious. English is not Latin, however, and contemporary authorities do not try to shoehorn it into the Latin model.  Nevertheless, many people are still taught that ending a sentence or clause with a preposition should be avoided.

This is the sort of English up with which I will not put!

Although Ben Zimmer seems to have laid to rest the myth that the above witticism can be attributed to Winston Churchill, the quote illustrates that trying to avoid a stranded preposition could lead you to get your linguistic knickers in a terrible twist.

In fact, there are four main types of situation in which it is more natural to end a sentence or clause with a preposition:

  • passive structures (she enjoys being fussed over)
  • relative clauses (they must be convinced of the commitment that they are taking on)
  • infinitive structures (Tom had no-one to play with)
  • questions beginning with who, where, what, etc. (what music are you interested in?)

Most attempts to avoid stranding or deferring prepositions in the following examples end up sounding over-formal, awkward, or like Yoda in Star Wars:

Stranded preposition Preposition before noun or pronoun
Gail has much to be happy about. Gail has much about which to be happy. [over-formal]
Martin persuaded Lucy that there was nothing to be frightened of. Martin persuaded Lucy that there was nothing of which to be frightened. [over-formal]
The house hadn’t been paid for, so they had to sell it. Paid for the house had not been, so they had to sell it. [not good English]
Who were you talking to? To whom were you talking? [over-formal]
The tennis match was rained off. Rained off the tennis match was. [not good English]
He wondered where she had come from. He wondered from where she had come. [over-formal]
She often said things that were inappropriate, but think of the pressure she was under. She often said things that were inappropriate, but she was under a great deal of pressure. [less emphatic]

To sum up, the deferring of prepositions sounds perfectly natural and is part of standard English. Once you start moving the prepositions to their supposed ‘correct’ positions you find yourself with very stilted or even impossible sentences. Well-established and famous writers over the years, such as George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, and Julian Barnes, have been blithely stranding their prepositions to no ill effect: please feel free to go and do likewise!

Finally, a prepositional joke, courtesy of reddit.com:

A snobbish English teacher was sitting in an Atlanta airport coffee shop waiting for her flight back to Connecticut, when a friendly Southern belle sat down next to her.

‘Where y’all goin’ to?’ asked the Southern belle.

Turning her nose in the air, the snob replied ‘I don’t answer people who end their sentences with prepositions’.

The Southern belle thought a moment, and tried again. ‘Where y’all goin’ to, bitch?’

*This myth will be well and truly debunked in a future post.

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