"Latin-obsessed 17th century introverts"?

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Some Language Log readers have long suspected me of secret prescriptivist sympathies, and I'm about to add fuel to the fire by standing up for John Dryden. Sort of.

It all starts with today's SMBC. A student asks "Can I end my sentence with a preposition?", and the teacher responds "Good question! Let's see what a group of Latin-obsessed 17th century introverts decided!"  The introverts' cartooned answer:

And they add, in the aftercomic:

Now, there's no question that the whole business about final prepositions involves layers on layers of foolishness. And there's no question that John Dryden set the foolishness in motion in 1672 (see "Hot Dryden-on-Jonson action", 5/1/2007), a date that certainly falls within the 17th century. And it's fair to call Dryden "Latin-obsessed" — all educated Europeans were steeped in Latin grammar in those days, and Dryden in particular made his living partly by publishing English translations of Latin authors.

But Dryden was a restoration writer without a puritanical bone in his body, who certainly had no objections to dancing. On the contrary, his works are full of strikingly unpuritanical passages like this chorus from his Secular Masque, which accompanies a "Dance of Diana's attendants":

Then our Age was in it's Prime,
Free from Rage, and free from Crime,
A very Merry, Dancing, Drinking,
Laughing, Quaffing, and unthinking Time.

As for sex, there's this from Venus a bit later in the same work:

Calms appear, when Storms are past;
Love will have his Hour at last:
Nature is my kindly Care;
Mars destroys, and I repair;
Take me, take me, while you may,
Venus comes not ev'ry Day.

Cho. of all.
Take her, take her , &c.

And if we were to rescue John Dryden from eternal torment long enough to give him a Myers-Briggs personality test, I'm confident that "Glorious John" (as Walter Scott called him) would score towards the extroverted end of the scale.

In fact, Dryden's opinion about the placement of prepositions in relative clauses was part of a sort of public-relations campaign, framed as one of the ways that Restoration English (and therefore Restoration literature, and specifically his own writing) had improved on its Tudor and Elizabethan ancestors:

… the language, wit, and conversation of our age, are improved and refined above the last; and then it will not be difficult to infer, that our plays have received some part of those advantages. […]

… these absurdities, which those poets [e.g. Shakespeare, Fletcher, Jonson] committed, may more properly be called the age's fault than theirs. For, besides the want of education and learning, (which was their particular unhappiness,) they wanted the benefit of converse […] 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 …

Even a century later, in 1762, Bishop Lowth (whose grammar helped popularize "Dryden's rule") still treated the issue as a matter of stylistic preference, in a (purposely?) self-subverting sentence:

This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to: it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing: but the placing of the preposition before the relative, is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.

It seems to have been amateur peevologists of the 19th century who elevated this characteristic of "the solemn and elevated style" into a supposed grammatical rule — Fowler 1926, for example, calls it a "cherished superstition".

Other LL posts on this topic: "X nazi", 4/7/2004; "An internet pilgrim's guide to stranded prepositions", 4/11/2004; "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; "18th-century grammarians vs. Shakespeare et al.", 9/9/2006; "New Yorker search engine stark staring mad", 9/20/2005;  ; "Forgive me, awful poet", 5/2/2007; "Prepositional anxiety and Voldemort's wand", 8/25/2007; "Progressive prescriptivism?", 7/25/2008; "Teaching zombie rules", 2/26/2009.

And please, spare us the spurious Churchill quote: "A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put", 12/8/2004; "A misattribution no longer to be put up with", 12/12/2004; "Churchill vs. editorial nonsense", 12/27/2005.


  1. Jerzy said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    Ah, so the teacher in SMBC should have said, "Let's see what a group of 19th-century amateur peevologists decided" instead?

    [(myl) Well, it's a comic strip, not a journal of intellectual history, so I think we can let Zach Wiener have a little poetic license. And anything that beats back the final-preposition superstition is worth supporting. But I thought that LL readers might appreciate some pointers to information on what actually happened.

    One iconographical issue might have been worth correcting, though — the late 17th century was a generally clean-shaven age (in England at least), and John Dryden was no exception:

    He (and his contemporaries) would have preferred ten thousand stranded prepositions to one of the displays of facial hair that all of Zach's "Latin-obsessed 17th century introverts" are sporting. Their odd mixture of Tudor and Victorian clothing styles would also have raised some eyebrows at court.

  2. David L said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    Bishop Lowth is still half-right, I think. Putting the preposition in the earlier position indeed "agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style." But these days 'solemn and elevated' is not generally regarded as graceful and perspicuous — almost the opposite, in fact.

  3. wally said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 10:12 am

    " Their odd mixture of Tudor and Victorian clothing styles would also have raised some eyebrows at court."

    obligatory xkcd

  4. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    Longer inventory of postings on stranded P, through 7/7/09, here.

  5. stephen said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    Then our Age was in it's Prime,
    Free from Rage, and free from Crime,
    A very Merry, Dancing, Drinking,
    Laughing, Quaffing, and unthinking Time.

    What was the policy on apostrophes back then? Was "it's" in the first line considered correct?

    Or was it somebody else's typo?

    Thanks for the enjoyable cartoons.

    [(myl) I don't know what Dryden's practice was in quantitative terms, or how much should be attributed to him and how much to his editors and printers. But (for example) in a 1717 edition of English translations of Ovid (by Dryden and others), orthographic it's occurs seven times, all as possessives (though there are plenty of possessives spelled its as well).

    And in 1771, Thomas Jefferson also used both spellings promiscuously for the possessive pronoun.

    So apparently the absolute restriction to its didn't occur until 1800 or some time later, though I don't know the history in detail.]

  6. Glenn said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    Love the panel order in the strip.

  7. John Cowan said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    "18th-century grammarians vs. Shakespeare et al." led me directly to "Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents so there", which is comment-free, so I'll comment here.

    In the "Rape of Lucrece" quotation, the second line is "And every one to rest themselves betake". GKP parses this as if it were "And [doth] betake everyone to rest themselves", where "doth" is implicitly inserted from the previous line. However, all but one of the examples for non-obsolete of betake shown in the OED2 have reflexive objects (Shakespearean uses are not counted as obsolete). So I suggest that the clause is correctly understood as "And everyone [doth] betake themselves to rest", where rest is a noun meaning 'sleep'.

    Here are the relevant OED quotations (note particularly 1593 HOOKER), some of which use archaic reflexive pronouns without -self terminations:

    15.. Sc. Metr. Ps. lvii, My soule doth her betake unto the helpe of the.
    1593 HOOKER Eccl. Pol. I. vii. §3 When we betake ourselves unto rest.
    1598 GREENWEY Tacitus' Ann. XII. viii. (1622) 166 The enemy betooke him to his heeles with small losse.
    1601 SHAKES. Twel. N. III. iv. 240 That defence thou hast, betake the too't.
    1684 BUNYAN Pilgr. II. 22 They betook themselves to a short debate. 1762 HUME Hist. Eng. (1806) III. 220 To betake themselves to other expedients for supporting authority.
    1794 BURKE Sp. W. Hastings Wks. 1842 XV. 166 They saw him..betaking himself to flight.
    1833 H. MARTINEAU Briery Creek v. 107 The Irish betake themselves to rebellion when stopped in their merry-makings.

    1612 WOODALL Surg. Mate Wks. 1653 Pref. 3 It was of old a custome..for the sick to betake themselves unto the..Temple of Aesculapius.
    1667 MILTON P.L. x. 922 Whither shall I betake me, where subsist?
    1714 T. ELLWOOD Autobiog. 3 He betook himself to London.
    1815 L. HUNT Feast Poets 21 So off he betook him the way that he came.

    The only contrary quotation is "1861 DICKENS Gt. Expect. II. 307 They betook their little quickened hearts behind the panels", about which I can only say that Dickens didn't know how to use betake.

  8. groki said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    John Cowan: bravo, nice distinction. my breath betakes itself away!

    off topic: 1601 SHAKES. Twel. N. III. iv. 240 That defence thou hast, betake the too't.

    at first, I had visions of "the too't" being some archaism for something like "the also [of i]t." alas, my Complete Works [Clark & Wright, 1911] has "…betake thee to't."

    still, it's interesting (in an OT sort of way) how the 2-and-3-letter homophones trade places.

  9. Ken Brown said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    "Not a puritanical bone"? Dryden came from a Puritan family that supported Parliament against the King. And worked for Cromwell's government – in the same office as Andrew Marvell while John Milton was their boss. They made their bureaucrats differently in those days. And so the famous scene of Milton, Marvell, and Dryden marching together at Cromwell's funeral. (Which might even be true)

    Milton and Marvell had no great objection to dancing either. Nor did Cromwell. The actual Puritans weren't quite as dour as they are painted. The word "Puritan" seems to have acquired its negative connotations very early – it might have originally been an insult later taken up by its target.

    But even if Dryden wholeheartedly accepted Monarchy and Episcopacy it was to some extent a reaction against his beginings – the Puritan bones were in his body, he just didn't like them.

    [(myl) OK, OK. But in 1672, a dozen years after the restoration of Charles II, Dryden was well established as a fervent monarchist, and in no way associated with strictures against dancing or even against sexual pleasure.]

  10. Bill Walderman said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    "Dryden was . . . in no way associated with strictures against . . . sexual pleasure."

    The opening lines of Absalom and Achitopel:

    In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin,
    Before polygamy was made a sin;
    When man on many multiplied his kind,
    Ere one to one was cursedly confined;
    When nature prompted, and no law denied,
    Promiscuous use of concubine and bride;
    Then Israel's monarch after heaven's own heart,
    His vigorous warmth did variously impart
    To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command,
    Scattered his Maker's image through the land.

    "Israel's monarch" is of course King David, but he's really talking about Charles II.

  11. Harold said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    Thank you for this fantastic post. Now I really want to read more Dryden. What a guy!

    BTW I always understood Dryden and Alexander Pope were Roman Catholics.

    [(myl) I believe that Dryden converted shortly after James II became king.]

  12. ignoramus said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    Tis better to go with the political flow unless it impoverishes thee, Milton was practical, his income was initially from usury but his pleasure was writing and being deeply witty.
    The mid-17 century was full of contrasts, like now, some people enjoy sin and others hate it, it depends which of these groups actually in charge, Good time charlie or the serious ones, both groups seek pleasure but defined their way. Milton deems most people just follow as long they are fed correctly.

  13. Harold said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    I am coming late to this discussion, but I have to agree with Dryden that ending a line of poetry — as least of poetry written in the heroic register — with a preposition such as "from" does sound bad, too me at least, in that it is too colloquial. Though it seems perfectly ok in speech and less formal writing. Perhaps this is the result of my ear's having been trained by adherents to Dryden's rule.

  14. Samuel Baldwin said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    What's the prescribed way to say "That's hard to put up with."? I've never understood the anti-final-prepositional nonsense, it seemed to make less sense than most prescriptivist tripe.

    [(myl) Well, though both are nonsense, you need to distinguish between prejudice against "stranded" prepositions (which is what Dryden was concerned with) and the generalization of this (already silly) idea to the consumate foolishness of objecting to all phrase-final prepositions. See here or here for discussion.]

  15. lucia said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    What's the prescribed way to say "That's hard to put up with."?

    I think it's "That's hard to bear." :)

    My impression is to make some prescriptivists truly happy, ome must eschew all the "up" and "down" phrases: "put up", "got up", "get down"

  16. John Walden said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    Can I get in a quick peeve about people who don't distinguish sufficiently between particles which are adverbs and those that are prepositions?

    Far too often you read or hear things like "Two part/phrasal verbs are verbs and prepositions". Here's an egregious example:


    Only in three of the questions is the answer a preposition, in the context given.

    Anyway, here's one of my favourites, bearing in mind that only the 'of' and the 'for' are prepositions, in this context at least:

    What did you put the book we read out of back up for?

  17. marie-lucie said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    The bed has not been slept in.

    Is your car paid for?

    We don't get along.


  18. Harold said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

    Well, back where I come from —

  19. John Walden said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

    I only now belatedly see that vastly improved versions of my last offering are to be found in that 'teaching zombie rules' thread.

  20. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    @marie-lucie: Fortunately, peevers against phrase-final prepositions are also generally opposed to the passive voice. Hence "No one has slept in the bed" and "Have you paid for your car?". (In both cases the active-voice version carries a somewhat different implication, but peevers are generally deaf to such nuances, so it's O.K.) In "We don't get along", sophisticated peevers will identify "along" as an adverb.

  21. Harold said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

    "The bodies that had terrified those souls" sounds to my ear more polished than "the bodies that those souls were frightened from" and more elevated than "the bodies that those souls were frightened of", to offer a modernized version. Though perhaps Jonson meant to indicate that the souls had run away, in which case "from" contributes visually to the meaning. In any case, I think Dryden was making an aesthetic rather than a grammatical statement, as a part of his quest for a more polished, elevated style, because the heroic register was the aesthetic ideal of both his and Jonson's day. Now were are so used to the kind of polished writing that Dryden inaugurated that, compared to the agreeably strange metaphysical and Elizabethan (or Jacobean) style, that Dryden's style strikes some, like William Empson, for example, as "flat."

  22. lucia said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

    Though perhaps Jonson meant to indicate that the souls had run away, in which case "from" contributes visually to the meaning.

    I'll admit to unfamiliarity with 17th century English, but doesn't the paragraph read as if Johnson did mean the souls had been frighted out of the bodies during all the violent activities discussed in the previous part of the play?
    I found the work here: http://hollowaypages.com/jonson1692catiline.htm

    Cet. The rugged Charon fainted,
    And ask'd a Navy, rather than a Boat,
    To ferry over the sad VVorld that came:
    The Maws and Dens of Beasts could not receive
    The Bodies that those Souls were frighted from;

    I could be mistaken on my reading, but think the bodies were dead because they souls had left them (in fright). Charon couldn't transport the dead souless bodies because he had insufficient numbers of boats.

  23. Xmun said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 3:18 am

    Bodies weren't carried across the Styx by Charon. Souls or shades were. So there are two problems mentioned here: how to get all those souls across the Styx (for which task Charon hadn't enough boats), and how to dispose of all the inanimate dead bodies left behind on earth.
    Or so it seems to me. I have never read Catiline.

  24. marie-lucie said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    The Maws and Dens of Beasts could not receive
    The Bodies that those Souls were frighted from;

    There were so many dead bodies that carnivorous animals could not deal with them all, either by eating them on the spot or dragging them to their lairs. The people had died of fright, their souls wrenched out of their bodies.

    About the preposition at the end: final prepositions in that structure are normally unstressed, but in the verse the word from has to be stressed in order to keep to the verse pattern: this is why the line is awkward and the structure therefore to be avoided, but there was no reason to carry the recommendation to avoid a final preposition in a line of verse over to prose (and obviously Lowth did not), let alone to normal speech.

    RAG: "Have you paid for your car?"

    I can't imagine anyone actually saying that. "Have you paid for …." suggests immediate payment in full for a relatively small purchase or order (a book, a meal, etc). This is not the way most cars are bought or paid for, instead the buyer usually contracts to make a long series of partial payments: I bet that even the most peevish peever would say "I'll be glad when my car is finally paid for", not "… when I have paid for my car". Of course, what they would actually say on the spur of the moment is not necessarily what they think they would or should say.

  25. lucia said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    Thanks. Obviously, my knowledge of Greek classics is limited. Also, yes, that makes more sense. There were too many souless bodies for the animals to eat.

    Reading some of the linked articles, it's obvious Dryden had been in the habit of stranding prepositions because he said he'd noticed it in his on writing and spent time editing to "correct" the sentences.

  26. marie-lucie said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    it's obvious Dryden had been in the habit of stranding prepositions

    but so was everyone else (and still is in most oral communication).

  27. lucia said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    Agreed. I probably should have written, "Dryden, the guy who made up the rule, was himself in the habit…"

  28. Jonathan said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    @John Walden: The version I'm familiar with is:
    What did you put the book we read out of about Down Under back up for?

  29. exackerly said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    The one I know is:

    What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of up here for?

  30. Gillard, grammar and the language of politics | Fully (sic) said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

    […] if you believe in the kind of copy editing rules that were started 400 years ago when people like John Dryden took Latin as a benchmark. English speakers have been leaving prepositions at the ends of […]

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