Prepositionssss…

« previous post | next post »

Yesterday, P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula posted some thoughts on education under the title "A goal to strive for". A zombie commenter promptly reached up through the soil of his gravesite to ask

is this where we snarkily mock PZ for ending the title of this post on education with a preposition?

As the 1995 Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes, in the entry on "Preposition at End",

…recent commentators — at least since Fowler 1926 — are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety. Fowler terms the idea a "cherished superstition." [...] So if everyone who is in the know agrees, there's no problem, right?

Wrong.

Thank you for your reply to my questions but I find it extremely difficult to trust an opinion on grammar prepared by someone who ends a sentence with a preposition.

This is part of a letter received by one of our editors who had answered some questions for the writers. Members of the never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition school are still with us and are not reluctant to make themselves known…

Here's a cartoon to introduce a (probably incomplete) list of our posts on the subject:

"X nazi", 4/7/2004
"An internet pilgrim's guide to stranded prepositions", 4/11/2004
"A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put", 12/8/2004
"Better a spectacular blunder than a hint of unseemliness", 4/25/2005
"The CliffsNotes version", 6/10/2005
"If we look, simply, to the French", 6/29/2005
"Avoidance", 7/5/2005
"New Yorker search engine stark staring mad", 9/20/2005
"Churchill vs. editorial nonsense", 11/27/2005
"18th-century grammarians vs. Shakespeare et al.", 9/9/2006
"Hot Dryden-on-Johnson action", 5/1/2007
"Forgive me, awful poet", 5/2/2007
"Prepositional anxiety and Voldemort's wand", 8/25/2007
"When Zombie Rules attack", 8/26/2008
" Also, check the back seat", 11/7/2009
"'Latin-obsessed 17th century introverts'?", 8/26/2010
"You can get preposition stranding right to start with", 10/3/2010
"Lady Bracknell strands even adjunct prepositions", 11/3/2010

Warning: Before commenting, please read "Boring preposition jokes: New termination policy", 10/4/2010.



33 Comments

  1. jfruh said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    Another, hopefully less boring preposition joke I've heard (also attributed to Winston Churchill, though that is completely beyond belief) involves a stranger on Harvard's campus who asks a student, "Excuse me, where's the library at?" When told "Here at Harvard, sir, we do not end a sentence with a preposition," he replies, "Oh, sorry, where's the library at, asshole?"

    [(myl) Yes.]

  2. jfruh said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    (Oops, sorry, that's what I get for not clicking on all the links!)

  3. Mary Bull said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    This is not a joke, except on me:

    A first glance at the title of this post returned "Prepositioness" to my brain, and I didn't stand corrected until I arrived at the cartoon.

    So, how would my fellow LL fans define a Prepositioness? (A cartoon depicting her would also be appreciated. :)

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    "A goal for which to strive" is exactly the kind of ugly, cacophonous phrase that results when this so-called rule is applied. I mean, blecch.

  5. Rube said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

    "Thank you for your reply to my questions but I find it extremely difficult to trust an opinion on grammar prepared by someone who ends a sentence with a preposition"

    Do people like this ever find themselves wondering why everybody pretends not to see them when they walk into a bar?

  6. J Lee said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    the cartoon reminds me of my hope that the advent of texting could put latinate verbs into heavier spoken usage because they are often fewer keystrokes than commoner phrasal verb equivalents..which would be quite a change for a vernacular

  7. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

    So, no jokes that end with something that looks like a preposition, and no jokes that don't end with a preposition-looking word because it's been moved elsewhere? That's a pretty restrictive gate to pass through. Just what is a determined moron supposed to do?

  8. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    One problem with this "rule" is that it's so damned easy to learn. Prepositions are easily identified, as is the end of a sentence.

    Ask most English Comp instructors what they worry about most, and you're likely to hear things like sentence fragments and run-on sentences. In my own experience, the problem with eradicating such errors (and not all of them really should be called errors) is that eventually a student needs to be able to identify (1) the sentence's main clause and (2) the verb of the main clause. Americans are abysmal at this, and typical grammar instruction is worse than no help.

    So you don't hear many complaints about sentence fragments outside college English departments, despite the fact that they are often a more serious impediment to communication than terminal prepositions.

    My hypothesis: Peevists get peeved only about the easiest rules to learn. Other examples include accusative "I" and conditional "was," none of which interferes with successful communication in the slightest.

  9. Lance said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    Mr Fnortner: there's always the story of the man up for parole, who, while the board was conferring, called out to one of them, "So, hey, babe, if I get out, wanna come back to my place with me?". The woman in question looked at him, and yelled, "Parole denied! I'm not letting you end your sentence with a proposition!" (Old joke, apparently.)

    Also: I'm a little disappointed that Tony's comment above was allowed through; oblique though it is, insofar as it's in response to the link where Geoff says that "I have decided that from now on I will hunt down the relevant commenters and kill them", it's calling for the killing of a member of Congress, and (especially in the post-Giffords-shooting era) that's in extremely poor taste.

    [(myl) It wasn't "allowed", it just wasn't deleted until I got back from meeting with the TAs for Linguistics 001.]

  10. Luis said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    This is to satisfy my own curiosity. I know that, even in English, there are cases where preposition stranding is impossible, e.g., "Whose wishes did she get married against". Is there an opposite case, where P-stranding is obligatory?

    [(myl) There's some relevant discussion here and here.]

  11. Ellen K. said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    @Luis.

    I'm confused, how is "Whose wishes did she get married against" an example where preposition stranding is impossible? Only one preposition there, and it's at the end. Isn't that a stranded preposition?

  12. Brett said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    @Luis, Ellen K.: I find "whose wishes she married against" to be borderline ungrammatical. The reason is presumably that the phrase "against his wishes" is not entirely compositional. It has an idiomatic meaning, and substituting similar terms for "wishes" produces results that are not satisfactory to my ear:

    *She married against his plans.
    *She married against his intentions.
    etc.

    Further evidence for the the non-compositional nature of the phrase seems to come from the fact that "wishes" needs to be in the plural:

    *She married against his wish.

    One would naturally expect that prepositions in idioms would be relatively resistant to being stranded.

  13. GeorgeW said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

    Luis:How about –

    Q – Is the TV on? (*Is on the TV)
    A – She turned it on. (?She turned on it)

  14. Brenda said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

    @GeorgeW

    "On" isn't being used as a preposition in those cases, though. I'm pretty sure it's being used as an adjective in the first sentence and an adverb in the second.

    [(myl) Or, to put it another way, it's an intransitive preposition, that is, one without an object. Since it has no object, it's automatically "stranded" in the sense of not being next to its object. Whether it's sentence-final or not, of course, depends on what other stuff you choose to add to the sentence.]

  15. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    @ Mary Bull
    Prepositioness
    I couldn't do that, but I'm pretty sure I could do a cartoon of a Propositioness.
    It would inevitably be rather like that old Punch cartoon about the lady solicitor.

  16. GeorgeW said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    Brenda & Myl: 'Turn on' is also sometimes called a 'phrasal verb.'

    However, since 'on' is generally recognized as a preposition, wouldn't this fall within the prescriptivist proscription?

    [(myl) It would not be covered by "Dryden's rule", which dealt only with the case where the preposition's object is a relative pronoun. The hyper-moronic extension of Dryden's rule to all sentence-final prepositions, including intransitive ones, has never (as far as I know) been proposed or defended in print by any even semi-serious prescriptivist authority, no matter how misguided. It appears to be purely a popular superstition.]

  17. Cy said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

    To make it easier for zombie editors and TAs etc., I was thinking all of us who are okay with preposition endings should do the following: when ending a sentence with a preposition, we append the silent "ending-preposition-mark": churchill For example:

    "where are you staying at churchill?"

    that way it's like a code, and nobody can technically say that we've ended a sentence with a preposition (until the OED adds "churchill as a preposition).

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

    My impression was that the commentator was mocking zombies, not being a zombie. I'd even hazard a guess that the recent Feelbadlygate was on his or her mind.

    [(myl) You might very well be right. But a Halloween-party zombie is still a zombie, of sorts -- and if the joke works, it's because un-ironic interventions of this kind remain surprisingly frequent.]

  19. Sili said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    A zombie commenter promptly reached up through the soil of his gravesite

    I was about to accuse you of having ruined ghey sex with Brownian for all of us, but then I remembered that some of the Pharyngulistas have a thing for zombies.

    –o–

    Nerdy as we are, we actually struck at the zombie fast and repeatedly, and it seemed to work:

    thread farther. I hope you’ll forgive such lapse’s. In the future its tempting, but I’ll reserve those sorts of comments for blogs like Language Log, since they belong their.

    –o–

    There is still no consensus on the use of "they" as the genderneutral pronoun at Pharyngula. Unfortunately.

    [(myl) In this case, I took the precaution of discovering Brownian's nominal sex before choosing a pronoun. With respect to possible Pharyngulian zombie fetishism, I have no comment.]

  20. Rubrick said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff:

    Prepositions are easily identified

    Surely someone's going to call him out on that one? (Well, I guess I have, but I'm not a linguist. From what I've learned (mostly here), prepositions are notoriously slippery beasts.)

    [(myl) I think that his point is a valid one, though, because it only really requires that *some* (indeed most) prepositions are easy to identify, so that most violations of the moronic generalization of Dryden's Rule are indeed easy to detect.]

  21. Darla-Jean Weatherford said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

    @Mary Bull

    At least you're more creative than I am; I first saw the title as "prepositioness," too, but my mind warped it into something like "the state of being preposition-y." I like your preposition royalty much better!

  22. peterm said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 1:45 am

    Brett said (September 2, 2011 @ 2:05 pm)

    "I find "whose wishes she married against" to be borderline ungrammatical. The reason is presumably that the phrase "against his wishes" is not entirely compositional."

    Why should lack of composionality make an utterance ungrammatical? The phrase "to take [something] under advisement", for instance, is grammatical and standard usage, yet not compositional.

  23. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 8:58 am

    @Rubrick

    Recall that the spirit of my comment was that the peevists deliberately choose easy targets because that's all their tiny brains are capable of holding.

    If their tiny brains overlook a few preps, or misidentify adverbs as preps, this is just irony.

  24. Lane said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    jfruh, I love that joke and put it in my book. It was a favorite of my dad's, and works at several levels…

  25. John Lawler said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    I think Jeff is right in saying that prepositions are easy to identify, since there is a common class of words like up, in, on, off, over, out, and the like, with a number of functions. The functions of these words — as heads of prepositional phrases, as complement markers, as idiomatic phrasal verb particles, as adverbials — are not detectable from the uninflectable short word itself. E.g, when you hear a word like up — with any function — you hear the same sequence of sounds, and when you read it, it's spelled the same. For a peever, that's enough; it's the same word, period.
    And the common name for these common words is "preposition". Peevers all learn that in school and never forget it. Since they never learn any syntax, however, they have nothing there to forget, and they already know they have nothing to learn. I think that just about nails the phenomenon.
    Unfortunately, it takes a wooden stake to deal with the phenomenon.

  26. Philip said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

    "Intransitive prepositions" is a new term to me. I learned to call them "particles" in grad school. Does this show how old I am and how long ago grad school was?

    Ending a sentence with one of these prepositions/particles is obligatory if the object of the verb is a pronoun:

    He turned the television off.
    He turned off the television.
    He turned it off.
    *He turned off it.

    This should throw a monkey wrench into the grammar gears of prescriptivists–especially if they don't understand that all "prepositions" aren't alike.

  27. John Lawler said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

    @Philip: As far as I know, intransitive preposition as a systematic term, was introduced by Huddleston & Pullum in their Cambridge Grammar of English, the larger of the two encyclopedic English grammars available. I'm learning to like it, though it's not what I grew up with, either.

    [(myl) I'm not sure who first used the term, but it's explicit in Joseph Emonds, "Evidence that object movement is a structure-preserving rule", Foundations of Language 1972. This is roughly 30 years before CGEL; I wouldn't be surprised to find that the idea is older than 1972.]

    I learned to call them "particles" in grad school, too. And then "phrasal verbs". It helps to have taught ESL at some point in one's career, I find, because it turns out that these "Verb plus Particle constructions" are probably more common as tokens, and certainly more common as types — by a large ratio — than ordinary, unaccompanied verbs.

    And English learners become aware of this immediately; and then require their teachers to explicate, please.

  28. Brett said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    @peterm: It's stranding the preposition in an idiom that I find often ungrammatical. There's nothing wrong with "against [someone's] wishes" or "take [something] under advisement," but to strand the preposition can be a problem.

    To strand the "under" in "under advisement" would require interpreting "take… under" as a phrasal verb with object advisement, which is clearly incorrect. In fact, "under advisement" is the most tightly bound part of the phrase; "take" could (possibly, depending on idiolect) be replaced with another verb, but "advisement" could not be replaced with a synonym.

  29. Ken Brown said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

    @Brett, 'under advisement' may standard somewhere, but its not part of my use vocabulary and I'm not sure how to use it. Does it always take "take"? Can someone or something "be under advisement". For example if I ask you a question and you are waiting for advice before answering can you say "that is under advisement"? Can you split the phrase as in "under [some kind of] advisement"?

    Its not something I can easily imagine saying. Maybe "we're going to have to take advice on that"

  30. Lurra said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 1:40 am

    I sometimes wonder–much in the same way there are radical prescriptivists–if there are radical linguists. For example, if a linguist hears someone say, "To whom did she send the letter?", do they think, "What a ridiculous peever!" IMO, it's not necessarily unnatural or ungrammatical to put the preposition with its object. When I was in high school, I was a proud prescriptivist, and now I continue to not strand prepositions, at least when it's not awkward to do so. In addition, it's not hard to imagine that some ESL speakers whose native languages mandate that prepositions accompany their objects (e.g. Spanish, Con quién fuiste?, cf. *Quién fuiste con?) may prefer to couple prepositions and their objects in cases in which it's not ungrammatical.

    Though I'm not a peever, the one case I can't seem to let go of is the unnecessary and sometimes inaccurate "at" terminal. In my grammar:
    *Where are you at?
    *That's a place I've never been at.
    The "at" in the question could be possible if the answer were something like "I'm at the library." But, the answer could just as easily be something like, "I'm on my way home," in which the "at" is rather superfluous. The sentence "That's a place I've never been" works perfectly well without the terminal "at."
    Of course, this doesn't impede communication or anything like that, but it just clashes in my ears. I'm wondering if anyone else agrees.

  31. Ellen K. said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 8:09 am

    @peterm: It's not that lack of compositionality makes a phrase ungrammatical. It's that lack of compositionality makes splitting the phrase apart ungrammatical. So "against [someone's] wishes is fine, but "Whose wishes did she get married against" less so.

    I do agree that it's awkward, possibly borderline ungrammatical, as Brett said. But not at all an example where stranding is impossible. Awkward and (perhaps) borderline ungrammatical, yes; impossible, no. For me, it works well enough to qualify as possible.

  32. ENKI-][ said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    Oddly enough, this is one of the few cases wherein the version without the sentinel preposition sounds more natural: "for which to strive" sounds better than "to strive for", and is easier to parse. This isn't anything like "up with which I shall not put", which is a mangled idiom anyhow. So, we could question his aesthetic choices in wording without bringing up this heuristic.

  33. Michael Gove doesn't know what the passive voice is – Telegraph Blogs said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 3:17 am

    [...] …which a) takes 75 words to say "be concise" and b) sternly tells us of the "inadvisability" of ending a sentence with a preposition, which is one of the great zombie rules of grammar, like splitting an infinitive, which everyone thinks is one of the Commandments of Good English but is, in fact, entirely invented and unnecessary, and no usage guide has said otherwise since at least 1926. [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post