Friday, June 8, 2007

The leftover Latin curse

I'm inspired by a comment thread on the post below to attack that most contemptuous of grammar rules: the ridiculous notion that you can't end sentences with a preposition. This rule aggravates me in particular because it is simple enough for every fool to understand and remember, so it is the one hammered hardest into the heads of poor, innocent schoolchildren. We now have generations of people who cannot quip, as Winston Churchill did when criticized for ending a sentence with a preposition, "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put."

Plus, it's an excuse to quote here, at length, an enticing passage in Garner's Modern American Usage on the subject (the argument is pulled largely from Fowler's classic Modern English Usage):

"The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which a preposition was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with. But Latin grammar should never straitjacket English grammar. If the superstition is a 'rule' at all, it is a rule of rhetoric and not of grammar, the idea being to end sentences with strong words that drive a point home. ...

"The idea that a preposition is ungrammatical at the end of a sentence is often attributed to 18th-century grammarians. But that idea is greatly overstated. ... The furthest [Bishop] Lowth [the most prominent grammarian of that period] went was to urge that '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.' That idea is an archaic view that makes modern writing stuffy. ... Lowth's statement about prepositions was hardly intended as a 'rule.' ...

"In 1947, a scholar summed up the point: 'Those who insist that final prepositions are inelegant are taking from teh English language one of its greatest assets -- its flexibility -- an advantage realized and practiced by all our greatest writers except a few who, like Dryden and Gibbon, tried to fashion the English language after the Latin.

"Good writers don't hesitate to end their sentences with prepositions if doing so results in phrasing that seems natural."

Despite grammarians' agreement on this issue, it's still pushed in the language education in our schools, and I wish it wouldn't be. Doing so creates squadrons of mean-spirited adults who try to make others feel small for saying, "What are you thinking about?" And to whom I would like to say, "Bugger off."

33 comments:

PhD9 said...

A preposition is a bad thing to end a sentence with.

No sentence fragments.

Introvert Girl said...

Don't you mean, "A preposition is a bad thing with which to end a sentence"? Of course you do!

Modern English Handbook, 1952: "A complete sentence says something about something."

William Timberman said...

Well, if we were German speakers, this would certainly not come up. Separable prefix verbs, and verbs at the ends of clauses guarantee that any number of sentences will end in prepositions, no matter what professors of Latin are wont to favor.

Introvert Girl said...

I get to be a curmudgeon, phd9:

"... Grand Jury proceedings was to insure that when someone was indicted, ..."

"Ensure" is the correct word choice. "Insure" should be reserved for financial contexts.

Introvert Girl said...

I love German. So darn logical. But you have to memorize the gender of every noun, which seems to take that German work ethic a leetle too far.

Karen M said...

phd9... So sorry! I didn't recognize you at first, or I would have immediately asked if you would also like to contribute... if so, please just send me an email, and blogger will do the rest. Of course, you'll have to respond, too. ;~)

certifiedprepwn3d said...

Can we include the split infinitive "rule" in the discussion as well?

Drives me about crazy -

more soon or later - even busy today, I am loving just getting to drop by and read here.

Karen M said...

Oh, yes, the split infinitive! Definitely worth a discussion.

Me, too. (re: dropping by)

Introvert Girl said...

Yes, please! I don't know how I would've survived childhood if the Enterprise hadn't been able "to boldly go." Who wants "to go boldly" anyway?

Joseph Lee, "A Defense of the Split Infinitive," 1952: "[The English language gives us] the inestimable advantage of being able to put adverbs where they will be most effective, coloring the verbs to which they apply and becoming practically part of them."

Sterling A. Leonard, Current English Usage, 1932: "The evidence in favor of the judiciously split infinitive is sufficiently clear to make it obvious that teachers who condemn it arbitrarily are wasting their time and that of their pupils."

certifiedprepwn3d said...

does the picture show up now, I wonder . . .

yes!

The boldly going is one of the best examples. A negative is also much more effective after the "to" -

Q- Do you want to go out to the party? Or to the club?

A- I want to not go out, except perhaps to the bookstore.

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

William has a good point about separable prefixes in German verbs, and the no split infinitives rule is part of the same thing. These rules are generally attributed to the conscious remodeling of English syntax after the Latin in the 18th century, but in many ways these are more anti-Germanic rules than pro-Latin ones. Both ending sentences with prepositions and splitting infinitives are common in German but not possible in Latin. Hence the application of these rules make English look less Germanic and more Romance.

But the basic fallacy of the no prepositions at the end of sentences rule is that the things that are being prohibited are not actually prepositions but are post-verbs that are part of phrasal verbs (and hence occupy the same function as German separable verbal prefixes). Basically, you can't end an English sentence with a real preposition. *'Put the ball the basket in' doesn't work. Only 'Put the ball in the basket' does. In this case the 'in' is a real preposition not part of a phrasal verb 'put in'. There is, of course, a phrasal verb 'put in' ('Put in fifty dollars and you can play') and you can say 'put in the ball' where 'the ball' is not the object of the preposition 'in' but is the object of the phrasal verb 'put in'.

In general, the post verb of a phrasal verb (which looks like a preposition) is separable and can be moved to the end of the sentence (which, as we know from German, is its natural place). Thus we can have a phrasal verb 'turn off' and a verb 'turn' that can be modified with a prepositional phrase using 'off':
Turn off the radio. (phrasal verb)
Turn off the road (verb + prep. phrase)
The post verb is separable:
Turn the radio off.
The verb + prep. phrase is not:
*Turn the road off.

This in a nutshell is the fallacy of the no preposition at the end of a sentence rule — the things being prohibited aren't prepositions in the first place, but part of the verb which it is perfectly natural (in a Germanic way) to put at the end of a sentence.

Karen M said...

"The evidence in favor of the judiciously split infinitive is sufficiently clear..." -great quote!

I do try not to use them gratuitously, but they definitely have their place, especially on board The Enterprise.

And, I'm guessing that both Austen and Shakespeare used them, though I don't know for sure. [The great thing about typing a sentence like that is that probably someone else here does know and will speak up.]

Wouldn't you both agree, that at a minimum, usages by either Austen or Shakespeare require no other defense? That's my personal opinion, and I'd be willing to add to the list, but judiciously.

In the meantime, I'll check out that Austen link...

Karen M said...

Frankly, my dear... I really think, and suspect the others will too, that your last comment should/could be developed into a post.

For one thing, it would be a lot easier to read on the front page than it is in this comment box. But it would also attract more attention there.

But what do you think, since you know the topic so well?

Jeff W said...

I always thought that the no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence "rule," the no-split-infinitive "rule" and the bias against "verbing" really just did not acknowledge the extent to which English is an analytic language (in a linguistic sense).

In that sense, English more closely resembles the splendidly analytical Chinese language(s) than either German or the Romance languages. (I love Chinese for that very reason!)

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

Well, it could develop into a post, but then I'd feel like I had to research it and make sure everything is just so whereas in comments I can just write off the top of my head and if I'm wrong, someone will tell me.

But as an extension, it can also be pointed out that sometimes a sentence has to end with a "preposition":

She turned me on.
She turned on me.

These two sentences mean completely different things and can't be changed by moving the "prepositions" around. The only way to move the preposition off the end of the first sentence is to restructure it as 'Turned me on, she did', not a natural word order but an acceptable one.

Karen M said...

I think you have your opening paragraph... ;~)

William Timberman said...

Maybe even your title. ;-)

Jeff W said...

FDM, that "prepositions/post verb of phrasal verb" distinction is very interesting. That had not occurred to me.

So, in the dialogue:

"Put the ball in the basket."
"What?"
"Put the ball in…!"

In its first use, in is a preposition but in the second it's the post verb of phrasal verb put in? Is that true? (Seems to be—one could say "Put in the ball…!" I guess.) I'm not questioning you—I'm just checking my understanding.

(It's not related grammatically but that "turned me on/turned on me" example reminded me of the time I was trying to explain to some non-native (Chinese) speakers of English the difference between "…found his stolen wallet" and "…found his wallet stolen.")

Introvert Girl said...

Jeff, that last example of yours seems perfect fodder for sentence diagramming. Sometimes, since we don't have the German-style noun declension clarity, it's the only way to understand what is going on in a sentence.

Introvert Girl said...

But the basic fallacy of the no prepositions at the end of sentences rule is that the things that are being prohibited are not actually prepositions but are post-verbs that are part of phrasal verbs (and hence occupy the same function as German separable verbal prefixes). Basically, you can't end an English sentence with a real preposition.

William, I'm so glad you came on board. My simple-minded little brain never thought about it this way. I'm going to up my hourly rates with what I learn here.

Karen M said...

And I am so glad that all of you have agreed to participate in this enterprise.

I can tell already that there is an incredible amount of language resource here, just crying out to be used in some expressive and useful way.

Sidebar: We're getting some new appliances installed tomorrow, but I'll still make time to check in.

And, I'm also hoping to order some latte art that I can photograph and possibly turn into something graphical for the header. I already told the coffee shop owner that I would be needing something special, so that his subconscious could be working on it.

Jeff W said...

I enjoyed Frankly's explanation also!

I'm going to up my hourly rates with what I learn here.

Do we get a percentage? :p

…to be used in some expressive and useful way

Maybe "used in some espresso way"? [groan]

Karen M said...

Another keeper, Jeff. You will have provided us with a full blogroll before we know it.

Jeff W said...

Um, gosh, Karen, that's a link to images of coffee on Flickr. It's a photo site…:-S

Karen M said...

I know it's a bit eclectic, Jeff, but perhaps you noticed the link to Green & Black's, too? That one is full of images of organic chocolate. (While discussing setting up this site, I'Girl and I discovered a mutual love of B&G's.

And, tomorrow, I'm hoping to secure a photo of some latte art to illustrate the title in the header. If that happens, I'll have to credit the coffee shop owner in some way (a blurb at the bottom?), and there should be some coffee to make him feel at home.

Btw, if I can't get something good enough, do you think that's something you could obtain in your neighborhood? I'm hoping for some latte punctuation, specifically, a mocha latte interrobang. But I'd settle for a pastry. (He's a great pastry chef, too.)

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

Jeff W: "Put the ball in the basket."
"What?"
"Put the ball in…!"

In its first use, in is a preposition but in the second it's the post verb of phrasal verb put in? Is that true?


Not really. As your ellipsis indicates, the second sentence is just elliptical. Ellipsis is quite common in English syntax, especially in dialogue once the parameters of the discussion have been established. Of course, it's possible that 'put in' might be a phrasal verb here, but that depends on the meaning of "What?" If "What?" means 'What did you say?", then 'put the ball in ...' means put the ball in the basket. If "What?" means "put what in the basket?" then 'put the ball in' is not elliptical and 'put in' is a phrasal verb. There is obviously some gray area where it is difficult to determine whether one is dealing with a phrasal verb with a direct object or a verb with a prepositional phrase used adverbially.

(Seems to be—one could say "Put in the ball…!" I guess.) I'm not questioning you—I'm just checking my understanding.

Again, one can say 'put in the ball' if "What?" means "What should I put in the basket?" but not if "What?" means "What did you say?" or "Where should I put the ball?"

You could also construct a sentence: 'Here is a basket to put the ball in.' This would, in my opinion, be a phrasal verb because the sentence could be transformed into 'Here is a basket in which to put the ball.' Being able to make this transformation is usually an indication of a phrasal verb. Note, however, that this transformation is not possible with 'turn on' (or its antonym 'turn off') when the meaning expresses emotional involvement. Here the word order is fixed and cannot be transformed. However the verb requires a personal (not inanimate) object:

She turned off the radio.
She turned the radio off.
She turned off the road
*She turned the road off.
She turned him off.
*She turned off him.

The choice of objects determines the meaning of the verb and in two out of three cases the word order is fixed.

But all too often a decision about phrasal verb or verb plus prepositional modifier is not entirely clear cut.

Introvert Girl said...

Well, if we're going down the coffee route, how about finding some pics from the World Barista Championships?

Karen, which coffee shop in Philli do you frequent? We go down there for a weekend now and then, and there's one shop I really fell in love with. Fantastic mochas. Does your barista know about the aforementioned championships?

Karen M said...

I'Girl, the coffee shop I've been frequenting is just outside of Philly. It's called the Regency Cafe.
http://www.regencycafe.com/

I love it because he keeps alternative milks on hand (coconut, almond, oat) and it's the only place I've been able get anything resembling a latte since I had to give up wheat/dairy (soy, too).

Philly has some great coffee shops, though... not as many as New York, but enough who take coffee very seriously. Even more seriously than I take my chocolate.

Right now, we're waiting for some new appliances to be delivered. They give you a 4-hr window. Ours is 10:00-2:00.

Introvert Girl said...

Karen, I will refrain from a diatribe on New York coffee shops. I will just make the prejudiced, blanket statement that East Coasters just do not understand coffee. And they don't understand coffee culture. And they have no taste buds. The exceptions: Common Grounds in Portsmouth, NH, and the coffee shop in Philly I've forgotten the name of.

William, it took me some real mess-ups with baking from my British cookbooks to realize that even our flour is different. I'd never heard of self-raising flour before. At least now I've figured out how to make it. But how confusing!

Isn't "rocket" a lovely word for a lettuce?

Karen M said...

I'G: I think our coffee shop owners would agree with you. That's why they get their coffee beans from Seattle, specially roasted they way they want them.

He makes this drink (which I cannot have, darn!) called a breve, which uses half-and-half for the foaming part. Both my boyfriend and my daughter have one of those. They look beautiful.

Could you be thinking of the Metropolitan Bakery? Lots of local coffee lovers like that place a lot. There's also a place on the Penn campus, called Avril (something) that always smells wonderful when I walk in.

Introvert Girl said...

Mm... breve...my mother's favorite, made specially by her favorite barista with this twist of orange.

No, it's not a bakery. All I can tell you is it's near some really popular diner that has a huge long worth-the-wait line for Sunday morning brunch.

Seattle--coffee mecca. Wish I could live there!

Karen M said...

I think you might mean the Melrose Diner? I don't know the coffee shop, since I haven't been there in ages.

Jeff W said...

FDM:

If "What?" means 'What did you say?", then 'put the ball in ...' means put the ball in the basket. If "What?" means "put what in the basket?" then 'put the ball in' is not elliptical and 'put in' is a phrasal verb. There is obviously some gray area where it is difficult to determine whether one is dealing with a phrasal verb with a direct object or a verb with a prepositional phrase used adverbially.

Got it! That was a dazzlingly clear explanation.

I want to save it somewhere for future reference! From time to time I help some non-native speakers with English and they occasionally ask "technical" questions—so your post is helpful in a truly practical sense for me.

Thanks, really!