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Let’s face it—what do any of us really know about language? If you had a gun to your head, could you tell me the difference between “farther” or “further,” or spell “minuscule” correctly? To make matters worse, a lot of the things you think you know about words are probably wrong. In honor of National Grammar Day (March 4!) we’ll be debunking dialectical deceit all month on Woot. Was your ninth-grade English teacher’s classroom a house of lies? Find out from 74-time Jeopardy! champion (and self-proclaimed grammar Nazi) Ken Jennings.

Language Myth #1: Never End a Sentence with a Preposition!

During World War II, a memo was circulated in a British government department pointing out that some in the office were incorrectly ending sentences with prepositions—you know, short words used to express spatial relationships or semantic roles, like in, for, and of. An anonymous functionary (misidentified as Winston Churchill in many versions of the story) scribbled a snarky postscript calling the rule “offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put!”

This is one grammar rule that even non-grammarians assume they can scold people with. (Or “with which even non-grammarians assume they can scold people,” as they would no doubt prefer.) It’s been drummed into our heads by decades of grumpy schoolteachers. In one 1975 usage study, even 20 percent of professional writers agreed that the sentence-ending preposition was a huge no-no. But the whole thing is bogus. Not for a century has any actual grammarian supported the “rule.” As long ago as 1926, usage guru H. W. Fowler was calling it a “cherished superstition.”

The idea seems to have been dreamed up out of thin air in 1672 by English poet John Dryden, probably in imitation of the grammatical construction of Latin. Dryden complained, seemingly without an ounce of self-awareness, that the so-called “great” Elizabethan playwrights broke this super-important “rule” all the time. (What hacks! You mean, “We are such stuff on which dreams are made,” right, Shakespeare?) Dryden didn’t seem to realize that there are many constructions where postponing the preposition is preferable or even necessary. So the next time you ask an English professor what page he’s on, and he asks you to re-cast the sentence, be sure to reply, “Okay. What page are you on, douchebag?”

Quick Quiz: On the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest quotes in movie history, #14 is the Shakespeare-inspired “The stuff that dreams are made of.” What classic 1941 film noir ends with this quote (and preposition)?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr member Mooganic. Used under a Creative Commons License.

conanthelibrarian


quality posts: 3908 Private Messages conanthelibrarian

Thanks for the post. I cannot tell you how often my coworkers and I agree on this issue.

ForbzyT


quality posts: 9 Private Messages ForbzyT

"These aren't the droids for which you are looking"

The Maltese Falcon is the name of the movie to which you are referring.

fadecomic


quality posts: 0 Private Messages fadecomic

I thought this one was fairly common knowledge. Usually the person yelling out, "You can't end a sentence with a preposition!" is followed by an equally annoying Boo-Boo Bear yelling, "That's a myth, stupid!". I remember being taught in school as far back as the 80s that the rule was a misguided attempt to mimic Latin, where apparently it actually does matter.

jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag

A friend told me that his college professor explained that it was in emulation of Latin, where it's not so much incorrect as often awkward-sounding, and "there is nothing in Latin that we should aspire to."

Everybody looked at said friend, wondering what he was laughing at. Sorry, wondering at what he was laughing...which, I might add, is now ambiguous.

In high school, I was taught that, at the end of the day, there are only two grammar rules. First, your point must be clear to your audience. Second, it shouldn't sound clumsy. That's it.

The shopping list of other rules, regulations, guidelines, and diagrams are for making it easier to achieve those goals, not the goals themselves. And putting the preposition at the beginning of the prepositional phrase is going to often push you toward clearer, smoother expression. So from that perspective, it makes an acceptable "rule."

crkline2


quality posts: 0 Private Messages crkline2

5367129 said, "The shopping list of other rules, regulations, guidelines, and diagrams are for making it easier to achieve those goals, not the goals themselves. And putting the preposition at the beginning of the prepositional phrase is going to often push you toward clearer, smoother expression. So from that perspective, it makes an acceptable 'rule.'"

I agree and all grammar rules were started sometime by someone. A rule having started in 1672 and still followed today has some historical clot.

maxrfb


quality posts: 8 Private Messages maxrfb

Heh heh. Boo Boo Bear.
Anyway, I had always though the correct way to correct this faux pas was to repeat the sentence, adding a derogatory word at the end. Generally a hole dug to hold a donkey, or the common usage for a female dog.

wow. I actually bought a Robot Elvis.
What was I thinking?

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

Nice work, ForbzyT! Maltese Falcon is indeed the movie of which I was thinking of.

jawlz


quality posts: 12 Private Messages jawlz

I think the notion is still useful as a stylistic guideline. In bad writing, the word or concept that a preposition is referring to is often unclear. Inasmuch as prepositions are inherently relational, a lack of clarity here is often problematic. At least thinking about this particular 'rule' - whether or not you choose to follow it - will generally help you avoid this lack of clarity (unless, of course, you are aiming to obfuscate).

jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag
crkline2 wrote:I agree and all grammar rules were started sometime by someone. A rule having started in 1672 and still followed today has some historical clot.



That's something that hadn't occurred to me, actually. If this isn't a rule, what's makes something a "real" rule?

J83pc


quality posts: 3 Private Messages J83pc
whoiskenjennings wrote:Nice work, ForbzyT! Maltese Falcon is indeed the movie of which I was thinking of.



I see what you did there...

You didn't always take me where I wanted to go.
No, but I always took you where you needed to go.
doctor.who

Jayrod521


quality posts: 4 Private Messages Jayrod521

Not that I ever believed or followed this "rule", but whenever I hear something about it, I've always been reminded immediately of "Beavis and Butthead Do America"

- Chief. You know that guy whose camper they were whackin' off in?

- Bork, you're a Federal Agent. You represent the United States government. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

- Oh, uhh. You know that guy in whose camper they -- I mean, that guy off in whose camper they were whacking?

- That's better.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

jcolag wrote:That's something that hadn't occurred to me, actually. If this isn't a rule, what's makes something a "real" rule?



It would certainly help if any authority at all in the last, say, century still stood by it.

Or if it was widely observed by good writers before, during, or after the time it was formulated.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

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jcolag wrote:And putting the preposition at the beginning of the prepositional phrase is going to often push you toward clearer, smoother expression.



I think you might have to argue this, not just assert it. Prepositional phrases do have the preposition first ("at school," "under the bed") but sentence-ending prepositions don't occur in phrases like these, as a moment's thought will reveal. They're usually in relative clauses or similar constructions.

How is "I have the stuff for which you were asking" inherently smoother or clearer than "I have the stuff you were asking for"? It's not. In different variations, one version may have better cadence than the other, but clarity of expression is rarely at stake--and when it is, it probably favors preposition-at-the-end more often than not.

missdatabase


quality posts: 0 Private Messages missdatabase

I agree completely, but there are times when a preposition at the end of a QUESTION is wrong (they're sentences too, you know!). For example: "Where are you going to?" or "Where did she put it at?"

In each example above, lop off that pesky preposition at the end because it's not needed, it's redundant. Indeed, the questions even sound better without them.

But that isn't a Rule, either. :-)

jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag
whoiskenjennings wrote:How is "I have the stuff for which you were asking" inherently smoother or clearer than "I have the stuff you were asking for"? It's not.



Fair, but clearer in many cases than either would be "I have what you wanted." Or specify what it is; I know I ask for a lot of things over the course of a day.

(Another possible point, wherein we're both wrong--though I forget the relevant linguistics to make the point--is that the "for" in your example may not be a preposition. Parts of speech are roles, not words, and prepositions are relational. Maybe I'm dense or there's a complement that's left understood, but I don't see what roles "for" relates.)

Maybe it's because I'm a programmer and work that way generally, but it seems perfectly viable to push borderline phrasing into the outright unpleasant so that it's replaced by something else. "...Or avoid the preposition entirely," seems implied.

As I said, I don't usually adhere to the guideline. I think I'm usually a clear enough writer that it doesn't help enough to spend time on it. I've also never demanded that anybody else follow it, because that's obnoxious even when right.

But where anything sounds off, I'll take what help on which I can get the hands of me (hey, possessives stink, too).