Monday, May 7, 2012

Prepositional Ending

Don't end sentences with prepositions? What are you talking about?


Howard Richler

Freshman: “Sir, can you tell me where the dining hall is at?”

Professor: “Don't you know that you shouldn't end a sentence in a


Freshman: “OK, can you tell me where the dining hall is at, asshole?”

From the time we entered high school we were taught not to end sentences

with a preposition; to do so was ungrammatical. Why it was ungrammatical,

however, was never explained.

Mind you, there were some rebels who discounted this prescription. In

Fowler's Modern English Usage, first written in 1925, by Henry and Francis

Fowler stated “It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be

kept true to their name and placed before the word.” Fowler adds that this

practice was seen as “inelegant” and “represents what used to be a very

general belief, and is not yet dead.” Almost a century after Fowler wrote

these words, the canard is still not properly dead and buried.

In an attempt to give this “superstition” a proper funeral, I thought it might

be instructive to explain how it came about in the first place. If we must

fault some group or person, the blame falls on English Puritans and Dryden;

John not Ken. Let me explain.

If you remember your English history, in the mid 17th century the country

undergoes a civil war. On one side you have the monarch Charles I and on

the other you have Parliament with many of the parliamentarians being

Puritans. The Puritans prevailed and Charles I is beheaded as a result. The

Puritans viewed many pastimes such as drinking, gambling and theatre as

vices and as a result for over two decades when the Puritans held power no

new plays were published. When Charles II reclaimed the throne some years

later the theatre was restored but naturally there was a dearth of new plays

for almost thirty years.

John Dryden was a late 17th century poet and playwright who took umbrage

that the public preferred the plays of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare

over his, particularly because these gentlemen had been deceased for over

fifty years.

When his play The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards was staged in 

1672 he ended it with an epilogue criticizing his audience's greater

appreciation of the works of Shakespeare and Jonson over his and his

contempories, and asserted that his own plays were far wittier than theirs.

Dryden, however, was not through with his braggadocio and trash-talk. Two

years later he published this play in book form an added an essay in which

he chastized the Immortal Bard for his “carelessness and ...lethargy of

thought.” One of Shakespeare's and Jonson's faux pas was allowing

sentences to end in prepositions such as in As You Like It when Rosalind

says to Orlando “Who do you speak to?” He was particularly scathing in

this essay to Jonson's play Catiline where a line reads “The... dens of beasts

could not receive the bodies that those souls were frighted from.” Dryden

characterized the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence by Jonson and

his ilk as “a common fault.”

Dryden, however, realized after writing this essay that in some of his

previous works he too had ended sentences with prepositions and went back

and corrected passages where he had committed this postpositional sin.

Dryden's Law represents the first time this dictate had been invoked by any

writer. It was an age where Latin was regarded as the most sublime

language and notwithstanding that Latin exhibited much flexibilty, it was

not possible to put a preposition at the end of a Latin sentence. In English,

though, it is possible and grammatical to boot which explains why writers

such as Shakespeare had done so. Expecting English, a Germanic language

to conform to Latinate rules makes as much sense as expecting an English

bishop to pray to Jupiter.

In any case Dryden's prescription caught on and by the 18th century while

ending a sentence in a preposition would not get you drawn or quartered, it

was nevertheless regarded as very poor form. In Bishop Robert Lowth's

1762 A Short Introduction to English Grammar he avers “Placing a

preposition inside a sentence is more graceful and perspicacious and much

better with the solemn and elevated style.” A century later in Henry Alford's

1864 The Queen's English we read “There is a peculiar use of prepositions

which is allowable in moderation but must not be too often resorted to. It is

the placing of them at an end of a sentence as I have done in the words

'resorted to'.”

So now that we know that Dryden dictate not to end a sentence with a

preposition was basically a publicity stunt to elevate his stature and

diminish the standing of Shakespeare and Jonson, I hope you will agree

with me that it represents pedantic nonsense up with we should not put.

Howard Richler's book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other

mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in 2013.

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