Lady Bracknell, in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, is one of the most terrifyingly pedantic and correctly spoken characters in all of English theater ("a monster," Jack Worthing says of her, "without being a myth, which is rather unfair"). And I have mentioned her usage in lectures on numerous occasions to point out, when talking about preposition stranding, that she does strand prepositions. But as I watched Mark Thomson's wonderful production of the play at Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre last Friday night (get tickets now, readers in eastern Scotland), I suddenly noticed something new about what she says when Jack Worthing gives his age:
LADY BRACKNELL: … How old are you?
LADY BRACKNELL: A very good age to be married at.
A preposition phrase (PP) like at the age of 29 is very clearly an temporal adjunct, not a complement. So Lady Bracknell is prepared to strand a preposition even in a temporal adjunct PP!
The thing is that this is usually treated by syntacticians as ungrammatical, not in the sense of being forbidden by some grammarianly edict that might or might not match the facts of usage, but in the sense of being instinctively avoided by native speakers and felt as unacceptable. Lots of cases of stranded prepositions that are heads of locative, directional, or temporal adjuncts seem clearly unacceptable to many speakers. Some examples (with the stranded preposition underlined):
|TYPICALLY REGARDED AS GRAMMATICAL:||TYPICALLY REGARDED AS NOT GRAMMATICAL:|
|Who did you talk to today?||*Who did you talk near today?|
|How many mayors have you written to this week?||*How many towns have you cycled towards this week?|
|What do you laugh at most often?||*What do you laugh during most often?|
|Tell me something you are happier about, will you?||*Tell me something you are happier since, will you?|
|The things I had been working for were now unimportant.||*The things I had been working despite were now unimportant.|
I am not of course suggesting that there is a clear-cut true generalization here about stranding adjunct prepositions being always disallowed. Quite the reverse: the example from Lady Bracknell itself is solid evidence against such a generalization. I take her utterance to be entirely well formed in Standard English, and thoroughly idiomatic; so the generalization that prepositions can be stranded only when they head complements, not when they head adjuncts, is (despite the foregoing examples) not accurate.
What exactly makes the examples in the green column above seem less felicitous than the ones in the red column has yet to be identified (obviously, it is likely to have something to do with plausibility and naturalness of the situation depicted, and frequency of the habit of stranding in that particular phrase; pragmatic concerns rather than syntactic ones, in other words).
But the issue of the "preposition at the end of the sentence" (a misnomer: none of my examples above have the stranded preposition at the end of the sentence) should not concern sensible people. It is not kind of grammatical sin. Lady Bracknell, an archetypal Standard English speaker if ever there was one, strands not only complement PP heads but also adjunct PP heads, whenever she damned well pleases.
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