Strunk and Ptah

« previous post | next post »

Today's Non Sequitur:

Of course, "Never end a sentence with a __" suggests that most thoroughly decomposed of Zombie Rules, the tangled web of confusion about phrase-final prepositions. This began with John Dryden's silly attempt to promote himself as superior to Shakespeare and Jonson, continued through the attempt to falsely attribute to Winston Churchillgrammatically ignorant and misguided joke, and leaves even well-educated people in a state of clueless anxiety that makes them write risibly awkward sentences.

More background:

"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

I don't expect you read all that stuff, but for your own sake, please read this before commenting.

[Title suggested by reader RHB, who sent in the link.]

Share:



33 Comments

  1. Dw said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    Bah. I still find the joke falsely ascribed to Churchill rather funny. It's a joke, not a dissertation, for Gods sake!

    This won't get me killed, will it?

    [(myl) Funny, yes, but also sad -- because hardly any of those who find it funny understand that the example is irrelevant to Dryden's Rule. They belong to several successive generations who are completely lacking in analytic resources for thinking about language, and can't understand Dryden's complaint as being about anything other than the presence of certain words at the ends of sentences. The result is the nervous cluelessness that leads to oddities like the sentence that J.K. Rowling put in Voldemort's mouth: ""My wand of yew did everything of which I asked it, Severus, except to kill Harry Potter."]

  2. Skullturf said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    DW — hopefully it's not the kind of thing that LL kicks commenters out for. :)

  3. Janelle B. said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    I took a creative writing course a while ago, and the prof. both corrected my dialogues for grammatical "errors" AND THEN would tell me that they did not sound "natural" afterward. I could not win that one…

  4. Mark F. said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    I'm with Dw. The joke gets its force precisely from the fact that it makes no grammatical sense to front the prepositions "up with" in that case. I'm sure linguists hear it far too often, though. Along with the one about Ayn Rand and God.

    [(myl) Show me a single (past) example of someone repeating the joke who gives any evidence of understanding the syntactic issues involved, and I'll buy you dinner at a restaurant of your choice. In the other direction, it's easy to find people using this quotation who clearly think that "which I will not put up with" would be a violation of the "rule" against stranding prepositions.]

  5. Henning Makholm said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    In the other direction, it's easy to find people using this quotation who clearly think that "which I will not put up with" would be a violation of the "rule" against stranding prepositions.

    It's not? Please explain how "which I will not put up with" differs from other sentences that the rule attempts to forbid. It appears to me to be quite isomorphic to "that those soules were frighted from" in all relevant aspects. I really cannot detect any meaningful difference here.

  6. David L said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    Maybe part of Voldemort's thoroughgoing evilness is that he is a strict prescriptivist and follower of zombie rules, so Rowling is warning her readers of the kind of awful sentence construction into which that sort of misguided thinking will force you.

  7. Pete said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    I'm almost afraid to say this…but I'm sure the fake Churchill quote is an example of the zombie rule (although I completely agree that the "rule" is hokum).

    The subordinate clause which I will not put up with ends with the "transitive preposition" (if that's the right term) with, which has as its object the relative pronoun which. The zombie rule says that this must be fronted, giving ?with which I will not put up.

    This is very awkward but arguably still grammatical. The fake quote, of course, takes it further and fronts the "intransitive preposition" (or particle or adverb or whatever you want to call it) up, resulting in the uncontroversially ungrammatical *up with which I will not put. That, I think, is the joke.

    Please don't denounce me as a simonhefferite! It's a zombie rule! But the original sentence, surely, is a true example of a sentence that violates the zombie rule – just once, with the preposition with.

  8. Pete said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    Henning Makholm must have posted his comment (10.19 am) while I was typing mine (10.42 am), which makes essentially the same point. Sorry to overlap, Henning!

  9. NW said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    The thing in the cartoon could actually be a rule of Ancient Egyptian. The chick is the letter w, a common plural ending, but usually (or always?) followed by a semantic plural sign consisting of three strokes.

  10. dw said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    [Mark F]: The joke gets its force precisely from the fact that it makes no grammatical sense to front the prepositions "up with" in that case. I'm sure linguists hear it far too often, though. Along with the one about Ayn Rand and God.

    [(myl) Show me a single (past) example of someone repeating the joke who gives any evidence of understanding the syntactic issues involved, and I'll buy you dinner at a restaurant of your choice. In the other direction, it's easy to find people using this quotation who clearly think that "which I will not put up with" would be a violation of the "rule" against stranding prepositions.]

    The joke may have been repeated by people who misunderstand it. That doesn't make the joke itself "grammatically ignorant and misguided".

    I hope MYL will forgive me if I say that he sounds rather more like GKP than his usual humorous online self this morning.

  11. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    ""My wand of yew did everything of which I asked it""

    J.K. Rowling is too good a writer to have produced such a howler, in my opinion. I bet she actually wrote "everything I asked of it", which would be an impeccable relative clause with the object of 'ask' extracted and made the head (no relative pronoun necessary).

    But because the construction "ask [OBJ] of [someone]" in this case, unusually, has an inanimate pronoun instead of an animate one (wands being, in a magical world, not exactly animate, but not exactly inanimate either) I think a clueless editor tried to 'fix' the (to her or him) unfamiliar construction. This editor did not understand "ask [OBJ] of [someone]" when used with a non-typical pronoun, and, I hypothesize, first tried to turn the phrase into "everything I ask it of." That didn't sound right either, so my hypothesized editor applied the one thing they thought they knew about final prepositions and tried fronting it and giving it a wh- pronoun head: "of which". Must be right, right?

    Basically, I'm blaming the 'nervous cluelessness' on an editor, but pinpointing their most basic problem as non-recognition of the nature of the construction they were dealing with. They seem to have correctly identified a preposition here and knew how to front it in an alternative relative clause construction; but the argument structure (relation of syntactic functions like objects, and the semantic roles they play in the sentence) got messed up in the process.

  12. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    What I find odd about the preposition rule is that Dryden was almost certainly discussing style rather than grammar. His comments are actually quite brief, and his examples are drawn exclusively from works of poetry. Hugh Blair expounds on the rule at greater length, and he does make it clear that his concern is one of style, not grammar. The basic point is this: since readers naturally emphasize the end of a sentence, that position should be reserved for substantive words rather than functional words (Blair's rule is more comprehensive than Dryden's). This likely explains Dryden's choice of examples, in which the offending prepositions occur at the end of a poetic line: such a position would have been considered even more emphatic than the end of a prose sentence.

    What I wonder is how a stylistic rule (ill-advised or not) morphed into a (purportedly) grammatical rule. Which raises another question: how many of our zombie rules originated as matters of style?

  13. Ellen K. said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 11:21 am

    I hope MYL will forgive me if I say that he sounds rather more like GKP than his usual humorous online self this morning.

    I'll agree on sounding GKP-ish, but I don't think that's a bad thing.

    As for "usual humorous online self", I don't know, I've seen way to many long technical posts from him to see "humorous" as the usual. :)

  14. John Lawler said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    myl's remark on the first comment above is the key, I think.

    "They [he cluelessly awkward] belong to several successive generations who are completely lacking in analytic resources for thinking about language, and can't understand Dryden's complaint as being about anything other than the presence of certain words at the ends of sentences."
    Exactly. English classes never have taught English grammar; one learned grammar by studying Latin. Once Latin stopped being studied, grammar stopped being learned. And nobody noticed, because the English curriculum did not change, except to canonize the catechism of shibboleths.

    And therefore these folks have no concept of constructions, constituents, or syntax, among other things. Grammar is "word follows word"; every word has one real meaning and belongs to one part of speech; and some words are just plain BAD. If you end a sentence with a preposition (whatever that is), you'll go blind. Split an infinitive (whatever that is) and hair grows on the palmx of your hands.

    (*sigh*)

  15. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

    J.K. Rowling is too good a writer to have produced such a howler, in my opinion

    I'm not Ms Rowling's biggest fan at the best of times, but I don't believe that *anybody* is so brilliant a writer that they are immune to poor sentence construction.

    I also suspect that, had the sentence been left in its more natural form, that somewhere out there, there would be a prescriptivist Potter-fan saying "J.K. Rowling is too good a writer to make such an elementary mistake as to write 'which I asked of it'."

  16. Lazar said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    I remember an instance in high school where an acquaintance told me to shut up, and I decided to troll him by citing this rule. He considered this for a moment, and then said, "Up shut!"

    [(myl) But "this rule", at least the version of it that Dryden introduced, says nothing whatsoever about forms like "shut up". It deals with cases where a relative pronoun is the object of a preposition, e.g. "the town [I came from which town]", where there are two grammatically possible versions in English, namely "the town from which I came" and "the town which I came from" (ignoring the variation among which/that/null). Dryden's claimed that the version with the "stranded" preposition — "the town which I came from" — was a "fault" that was written "not correctly".

    Specifically, he writes about the " absurdities" committed by poets like Jonson, and noted that "Their audiences knew no better; and therefore were satisfied with what they brought. Those who call theirs the Golden Age of Poetry, have only this reason for it, that they were then content with acorns, before they knew the use of bread". He says that "I cast my eyes but by chance on Catiline; and in the last three or four pages, found enough to conclude that Jonson writ not correctly"; the only example that he gives is an example of preposition stranding; and in conclusion he asks "And what correctness, after this, can be expected from Shakspeare or from Fletcher, who wanted that learning and care which Jonson had?"

    Now, Dryden's conclusions in this case were foolish ones, which he himself notes to be contrary to the practice of the best writers of his own time and the generation before him. But in the past century, the ignorance of grammatical analysis has reached the point that many people can't understand his proposal in any other terms than as a prohibition of all lexical prepositions in phrase-final position.]

  17. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    RE: JK Rowling

    Is it not possible that the sentence is so stiff because it was uttered by Voldemort and is not part of the surrounding narration? Voldemort is a classic study of an insecure person allotted too much power. The utterance seems to reflect that, and for all the reasons that have been cited.

    [(myl) The sentence is not "stiff", it's ungrammatical. That's the same sort of misunderstanding that lies behind the facile replication of the "up with which I will not put" joke, which people think is funny because it shows how foolishly stiff and excessively formal the application of Dryden's Rule can sometimes be, whereas actually "up" is an intransitive preposition (often called a "particle"), for which placement in the beginning of the relative clause is not and never has been a grammatical option at all.]

    I may be giving Rowling too much credit, but I think I could sell the argument during an MLA presentation.

    [(myl) It's a sad commentary on the MLA that you probably could.]

  18. Tracy said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

    NW — the quail chick is just way too common for that. :) For the simplest counter-examples I can find, the 3d person masculine dependent pronoun (transliterated "sw") and the indefinite pronoun ("tw") are both written ending with just the quail chick, and both can end a sentence.

    If there were a unicode standard for Egyptian hieroglyphs, this explanation would make more sense. But there isn't, probably because it's a really hard project.

  19. Mark F. said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    MYL – All of what you say is true. I certainly didn't understand the syntactic issues until you explained them. But should that ruin the joke? Take the old one

    "Would you like cream with your coffee?"
    "I think not," said Descartes, and disappeared.

    That joke depends on the idea that an assertion is equivalent to its converse. Is the joke ruined because it's based on a fallacy? Maybe it is, I don't know.

  20. blahedo said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    Re: JK Rowling

    Following off @SpellMeJeff's comment, it's possible that the "nervous cluelessness" involved is not JK Rowling's, but Voldemort's; rather akin to an author who knows better putting a "whom" hypercorrection or an objective "and I" into the mouth of one of their characters. In this case, not just "stiff" but ungrammatical, as @myl rightly points out, but that doesn't negate the underlying point that authors can intentionally have their characters make unintentional mistakes of grammar and rhetoric.

  21. Stitch said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    If you hate the "Churchill" joke, I bet you'll REALLY hate "Where y'all from, Bitch?"

    http://walkinthewords.blogspot.com/2009/03/grammar-humor-dont-end-sentence-with.html

    [(myl) On the contrary, I've cited it myself several times. It doesn't rely on misunderstanding the syntactic principles involved, but rather goes directly and refreshingly to interpersonal hostility.]

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    @blahedo and SpellMeJeff: If I were in the MLA, I'd want to know whether Rowling has Voldemort make other "hypercorrect" errors.

    @MYL: The CGEL repeats the "up with which" joke. So does this, citing it. Is that the sort of thing you were saying doesn't exist?

  23. Henning Makholm said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

    MYL, is your point supposed to be that the particular rule formulated by John Dryden does not actually forbid "that I will not put up with"? If so, that just shows that John Dryden is entirely irrelevant to the joke. The joke does not claim to be about Dryden at all, so if Dryden said something that does not apply to the joke, well, that's his problem.

    [(myl) But the prejudice against stranding prepositions (whose nominal object is relativized) is the ONLY "rule" that has ever been seriously proposed by usage mavens or enforced (as far as I know) by competent copy editors. The generalization to all phrase-final prepositions is a relatively recent event, representing a misunderstanding by people considerably lower down on the usage food chain.]

    The point of the joke is to make fun of the supposed rule that prepositions cannot end a sentence. If that is not what Dryden said, then the joke is just not about Dryden. It ought to be beyond debate that a simplistic rule forbidding sentence-final prepositions exists in the minds of some people out there; the fact that this rule does not describe real English (or that John Dryden may not have promulgated it in that form) is no reason why it cannot be the topic of a valid joke. Nor is there any rule that says that only the stupid or ignorant are allowed to find jokes that are unrelated to John Dryden funny.

    The joke is funny because how subtly its hero puts down the antagonist. The point of it is that neither "up with which I will not put" nor "with which I will not put up" is good English. We're supposed to imagine the peever retorting:

    Silly Churchill, of course you're not supposed to do that. Only the preposition itself must be fronted, so you should have said: With which I will not put up. Hmm, that sounds a bit strange too. Actually you should have said … hmm … I'll get back to you.

    The antagonist is tricked into figuring out for himself that there is no rewriting of "that I will not put up with" that will simultaneously satisfy his simplistic rule and qualify as proper English; thus the rule has to be discarded or at least modified.

    Simply showing Churchill arguing this rationally would perhaps be more educational, but not a joke. Handing the critic the rope to hang himself with, that's a joke.

    [(myl) The context of the fake-Churchill joke makes it clear that the "up with which I will not put" come-back is indeed intended to confound a Dryden-style intervention by a copy editor. But I see no evidence from reading the history that any of the people who have promoted this come-back had your subtle and elaborate argument in mind -- instead, they simply don't understand the difference between a stranded preposition whose nominal object has been relativized -- for which fronting is optional if rather formal -- and a phrase-final particle whose fronting is completely ungrammatical. The sad thing about this whole discussion is how few of the commenters seem to grasp this distinction either.]

  24. WillSteed said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

    I'd thought the hieroglyph was 'bin', the evil little bird, which would have made a nice comment. But I'm no Egyptologist.

  25. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

    The sad thing about this whole discussion is how few of the commenters seem to grasp this distinction either.

    That's "sad" in a parochial sense but somewhat distant from and much less vital than what's involved in the prescriptivist peeving that generally draws your and other LL bloggers' ire. The "sadness" of it is that it shows a lack of technical competence at grammar and linguistics as objects of study…not language usage.

    But the generalized prescriptivist peeve that identifies a sentence-ending "with" as necessarily a preposition and, much more to the point, asserts that being so it's also necessarily ungrammatical…well, that view is quite far-reaching in its implications and assumptions, isn't it? Quite objectionably so, given that it's simply wrong.

    I can well understand that anglophone linguists would particularly be dismayed at low academic attainment of English grammar as a technical subject; but surely claims about a lack of competency in a speaker's native language are much more provocative? If so, then it seems to me that Henning Makholm is right to argue, as I think he is, that the Churchill joke should be more welcomed for its resistance to the greater sin than villified for the lesser.

  26. maja said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    Tracy, Egyptian hieroglyphs have been in Unicode since version 5.2, released two years ago. Here's a quail chick for you, probably invisible for lack of font support: 𓅱

  27. JMM said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

    MYL, I hate to say something like this, but you simply know too much to get that pseudo-Churchill joke. There is not supposed to be anything subtle or elegant evolved. The joke isn't aimed at anyone who has ever heard of Dryden, much less this rule of his. The point is that following the "Rule" sounds very, very stupid. Counter to common usage, if you wish. And putting this put down into the mouth of someone generally considered very intelligent and educated (Churchill) makes it that much better.

    The people who laugh at this joke would say, "'between a stranded preposition whose nominal object has been relativized' HuH Whats a huh?" It only matters that an incident of trying to follow a stupid rule, one that many people have run up against, sounds immensely dumb. Therefore, we can laugh.

    (I recently heard version of that tale of a book brought up in which the book was about Australia, thereby adding three more 'prepositions' at the end of the sentence, but I want say it because I value my life.)

  28. JMM said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

    I wish someone would do this kind of analysis to "The Aristocrats". Now, that is annoying as hell.

  29. Dakota said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 12:52 am

    From the halls of my alma mater:

    Guy walks into the English building and sees a guy sitting in an office.

    "Where is the English Department at?"
    Second guy (severely): "One cannot end a sentence with a preposition."
    First guy: "Where is the English Department at, asshole."

    (If GKP has seen this joke before, I trust I will be able to find his address before he finds mine.)

  30. Tracy said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 4:01 am

    maja: Awesome! And now I will spend too much time looking at fonts . . .

  31. Nick Lamb said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 4:31 am

    Hmm, is it true that I can't type

  32. Nick Lamb said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 4:40 am

    Ok, so yes, (some part of) the WordPress system can't handle characters like U+13171 in comment text, for whatever reason. We have an installation on a test system somewhere around here, so I will try to find a moment to investigate later.

  33. Henning Makholm said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 6:57 am

    MYL: So your complain is that the rule being made fun of in the Churchill joke is a different rule from the one you'd like to make fun of? You're seriously contending that a misunderstanding can be too wrong to be made fun of?

    [(myl) No. The complaint -- which is originally Geoff Pullum's -- is that the people who replicate the joke, and probably the person who first invented it, don't understand the nature of the "rule" that they're accused of violating. The commenters on this post have amply validated that view.

    Here's how Geoff explained the issue, in "A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put", 12/8/2004:

    The strategy was to construct a case in which leaving a preposition at the end of the clause would be decisively the preferred style (for other such cases, see The Cambridge Grammar, pp. 628-630), and then to front the preposition to show the ignorant editor what a stupid rule he was trying to enforce. But the example involves cheating. Twice.

    First, the example is one in which the preferred form of the sentence ended in two prepositions, the second with an object and the first without, and he fronted both of them. That's never allowed. So no wonder it sounds ungrammatical. The ungrammaticality shows nothing about whether or not preposition stranding ordinarily sounds ungrammatical. [...]

    [T]here's another dishonesty in the example. It uses an idiom that doesn't like to be broken up at all by any kind of reordering. When you use the idiomatic verb phrase put up with X, you have to keep the sequence put up with as is. Almost nobody, however formal, thinks that it would be a style improvement to take this interrogative sentence

    How many interruptions am I supposed to put up with?

    and re-phrase it this way:

    ??With how many interruptions am I supposed to put up?

    It's decidedly awkward, possibly even ungrammatical.

    So in the first place, up with which I will not put illicitly preposes not one but two prepositions (the second one being a preposition that under traditional analyses of his time would have been called an adverb), and that's never permissible. And in the second place, it does it to an idiom which resists preposition fronting anyway, so even fronting just the with would have sounded bad.

    The mythical rule about preposition stranding being a grammatical fault is indeed nonsense, and it's not something you should put up with. But the tricky little piece of cheating attributed to Churchill does not show that.

    In the body of the post, I summed up this argument by referring to "a grammatically ignorant and misguided joke", linking to Geoff's 1,000-word explanation of why the joke is grammatically ignorant and misguided. For my pains, I've had to spend half an hour responding to grammatically ignorant and misguided commenters who obviously didn't follow the link. It's enough to persuade me to adopt Geoff's "no comments" policy.]

RSS feed for comments on this post