Lexicon Valley: Why We Think We Can’t End a Sentence With a Preposition

A show about the mysteries of English.
Feb. 6 2012 4:09 PM

Where Did That Sentence-Ending Preposition Rule Come From?

Listen to Slate’s new language show Lexicon Valley, with Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo.

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Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 1: A Sin of Which None Is Guilty

Andy Bowers Andy Bowers

Andy Bowers is the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Follow him on Twitter.

We all learned you’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. But from where did this alleged rule come? And why does it encumber us with such labored sentences as the one preceding this? In the first episode of Slate’s new language program Lexicon Valley, producer Mike Vuolo and On the Media co-host Bob Garfield explore the history of the terminal preposition rule, and whether there are good reasons to follow it.

Lexicon Valley is a new audio program created by Mike Vuolo. In the coming weeks we’ll explore a broad array of issues surrounding language. They’ll range from linguistic pet peeves, syntax, and etymology to sociolinguistics, neurolinguistics, and the death of languages.

You'll find a list of all Lexicon Valley episodes at slate.com/lexiconvalley, or in the player below:

We also welcome your thoughts on what you’d like to hear. The show’s address is slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com. That’s also where you can send responses to the show’s weekly “lexiconundrum.”

 
Below is a transcript of this episode:

BOB: We're gonna begin with one of the most notorious prescriptions our own personal English teachers ever had to offer. And that is: Never end a sentence with a preposition. So where is this discussion gonna lead us to?

MIKE: Well, I thought this was a good place to start ...

BOB: Wait, wait, wait. You see what I did there?

MIKE: Yeah.

BOB: To where shall we be led by this discussion. See what I did? I, I, eh.

MIKE: I'm gonna choose to ignore that joke. This is a good place to start because it really is one of the biggest myths in the English language, this idea that we're not supposed to end sentences with prepositions. In fact, I'm sure most of us remember learning this as a kind of dogmatic rule as a kid. What I don't remember, though, is learning a reason for the rule. Did you learn, Bob, why?

BOB: No, the nuns just smacked me with a ruler again and again and again.

MIKE: [laughing] You didn't go to parochial school, did you?

BOB: No, I'm, I'm Jewish actually. That was a lie. So what's the answer to your question? If it's a myth, where did the mythology begin?

MIKE: It turns out that this objection to preposition "stranding," as it's sometimes called, has been around consistently for a very long time. In the 1760s, for example, Robert Lowth, who was a Bishop in the Church of England and a kind of self-styled English-language scholar, published a book called A Short Introduction to English Grammar. In it he wrote that placing a preposition inside the sentence, not at the end, is "more graceful, as well as more perspicuous" and agrees much better with the "solemn and elevated style." He then went on to name names, writers who had violated this rule of sorts, including Shakespeare. "Who servest thou under?" King Henry V asks of Williams, a soldier in his army. In As You Like It, Rosalind asks Orlando, "Who do you speak to?"

BOB: Yeah, that Shakespeare, he was so sloppy.

MIKE: It's a scandal that he's even still part of the curriculum.

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: A full century later, in the 1860s, Henry Alford—also a preacher, also a language scholar—published a book called The Queen's English in which he wrote,  "There is a peculiar use of prepositions which is allowable in moderation but must not be too often resorted to. It is the placing them at the end of a sentence, as I have just done in the words 'resorted to.' " If we skip ahead to the early 20th century, the Fowler brothers, Henry and Francis, published The King's English, in which they referred to the, "modern superstition against putting a preposition at the end." Of course, that superstition wasn't modern, even then.

BOB: Now, I happen to know because we've had this conversation before, Mike, that there is a long and winding path to get to Henry Fowler's view on prepositional stranding. It begins a little after Shakespeare, right?

MIKE: Fifty or so years after Shakespeare, exactly. The whole saga of this objection to preposition stranding begins with a guy named John Dryden, who was a poet and a critic and a playwright in the 1600s. Before we talk about Dryden, though, let's establish what was happening politically in England at the time. In the mid-1600s, there was a civil war that pitted the Parliament against the monarchy of King Charles I. Long story short, the parliamentarians win, Charles I was put on trial, ultimately beheaded, and a period of parliamentary rule replaced the monarchy. Now, many members of Parliament and their supporters were Puritans. And Puritans were famous for being puritanical.

BOB: They were fundamentalist Protestants.

MIKE: Yes, and they banned many of the traditional vices—drinking, gambling. They also banned what many considered a vice at the time, the theater.

BOB: You know I don't know about theater per se but I know that actors and playwrights were considered vulgarians and little above thieves and prostitutes. They were an underclass.

MIKE: Not unlike today.

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: Maybe I've been reading too much TMZ.

BOB: Yeah, Lindsay Lohan excluded. All right, so the Puritans did not like theater.

MIKE: And so, for a period of time the theater was legally forbidden. Later on, the monarchy was restored. The son of Charles I, Charles II, became king. He had been living in exile in Europe and had no such puritanical problems with the stage, so he reopened all the theaters. But ...

JACK LYNCH: But there's a problem with opening the theaters. There have been no new plays written for the last two decades almost.

MIKE: So that's Jack Lynch on a very bad phone line. He's a professor of English at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and he is the author of The Lexicographer's Dilemma. He says that the theater operators didn't have much in the way of new material to stage.

LYNCH: So they have to look back to the last age to find plays that work. And there's a kind of rivalry going on in the 17th century over the current age and the last age. Some people are now looking back to the age of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson as the greatest age in English literary culture. Dryden is trying to make a living as a poet and a playwright in his own day, and he's trying to make the case that we've got something to say as well.

MIKE: Around this time, Dryden writes a drama called The Conquest of Grenada. And at the very end of the play there was a very short epilogue in rhyming verse.

BOB: Yeah, a little coda like Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

MIKE: Yeah, Shakespeare did it in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He did it in a few other plays. A narrator will come out, sort of praise the audience for their good taste in attending this play, maybe praise the actors, perhaps ask for some applause. The narrator ingratiates himself to the audience, typically. Dryden did something a little different.

LYNCH: He actually criticizes his audience for being too fond of the writers of what he calls "the last age." And he specifically singles out Ben Jonson, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare. He points out that Ben Jonson's age was actually backwards and he says that his own contemporaries are better writers. Of course, part of his meaning was that he is a better writer. This wasn't entirely disinterested advice. But he announces to the world through his epilogue that wit "now arrived to a more high degree:/ Our native language more refined and free,/ Our ladies and our men now speak more wit/ In conversation, than those poets writ." So he's making the case that his own age and his own plays are more advanced, more sophisticated, more correct than the age of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare.

BOB: OK, Mike. So far, so good. John Dryden is a self-aggrandizing dick. I know we promised a long and winding road, but I'm having trouble seeing how this road leads anywhere to dangling prepositions. So, uh, what's the deal?

MIKE: Well, a year-and-a-half later Dryden decides to publish his play, The Conquest of Grenada, in book form. People were urging him not to include the epilogue, because it really pissed people off and made him sound like a jerk. Not only does he include the epilogue but he adds a prose essay, a kind of postscript that he calls "Defence of the Epilogue," where he catalogs in even greater detail the many ways in which the great writers of the previous age are in fact inferior. He says, "Let any man who understands English read diligently the works of Shakespeare and Fletcher and I dare undertake that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech or some notorious flaw in sense, and yet these men are reverenced when we are not forgiven."

BOB: Yeah, it reminds me of when Jonathan Franzen refused to go on Oprah because the tastes of the public were so beneath him.

MIKE: Oh yeah, that's what we wanna do, in our inaugural podcast about language: attack and alienate Jonathan Franzen.

BOB: [laughing] You know, I compared him to John Dryden. Who can be upset with that?

MIKE: In any case, Dryden spends much of the essay critiquing the language specifically and grammar of, for example, Ben Jonson.

LYNCH: Ben Jonson was the most learned of the playwrights of the early 17th century and he picks one of Jonson's most classically structured plays, a play called Catiline, and he quotes two lines: "The waves, and dens of beasts could not receive/ The bodies that those souls were frighted from." And he follows that up with his own little notation: "The preposition in the end of the sentence, a common fault with him." This is the first really clear statement of anyone having specific trouble with prepositions at the end of a sentence. No had ever said, "the preposition in the end of the sentence, a common fault." But Dryden looks at Jonson, sees "the bodies these souls were frighted from," and says that's wrong.

BOB: At last! We're here. Ben Jonson breaks the dangling preposition rule. Then what happens?

MIKE: Well, I asked Jack Lynch, why would he consider it a "fault"?

LYNCH: In Latin, which many writers of this day considered the ideal model of a language—it did everything a language should—in Latin, there's an awful lot of flexibility about word order. You can put the words in many sentences in any number of orders, and they're all perfectly grammatical in Latin. But in Latin there's one thing you can't do. You cannot have a preposition that comes after its object. And that shows up even in the name of the part of speech—"preposition," pre-position. It has to come before, so in Latin you could not say "the bodies that those souls were frighted from." That would simply be ungrammatical in Latin. On the other hand, it had long been grammatical in English, and countless great English writers had done it. Dryden himself had done it.

BOB: Dryden himself ended sentences with prepositions?

MIKE: Yeah.

BOB: But he just made a big production out of despising that practice.

MIKE: He decided that preposition stranding was so objectionable that he actually went back and, you know,  "corrected" all of them that he could find in his own writing.

BOB: Like the de-Stalinization of Russia. Revisionist literature.

MIKE: Sure. Of course, if you talk to any credible linguist today, he or she will tell you that Dryden's time revising his own work would have been much better spent, that there's nothing grammatically incorrect, there's nothing linguistically wrong with stranding prepositions. If fact, there are many times when it’s preferable to do so. Lynch cited for me the example of another linguist: "Her father had a similar problem with which he simply lived."

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: Yeah, it doesn't really sound like good English to say that because it more or less distorts the meaning of what you're trying to convey.

BOB: But, not the most awkward construction I've heard. Remember Paul McCartney and Wings, uh, "Live and Let Die"?

MIKE: Remind me.

BOB: "In this never-ending world in which we live in" [laughing]. He kind of played both ends against the middle.

MIKE: Yeah, he's trying to have it both ways. You know, my example would be if you were, say, asking somebody on a first date, "Where are you from?" There are any number of ways you could contort that sentence so that it doesn't end with a preposition.

BOB: Yeah, I used to say, "From where do you hail?"

MIKE: Really?

BOB: Yeah, I had very few second dates, I gotta say.

MIKE: I can't imagine why.

BOB: [laughing] Well, you have more information than most. We've met. Can we just recap?

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: I wanna see if I have this right. So, during the English Civil War, theater is banned, so there's no new plays being written. And then, following the civil war, under the reign of Charles II, the theater reopens but there's no inventory of playwrights, like the end of the writers' strike in Hollywood. So, theater owners are staging reruns, right, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and so on, and this infuriates John Dryden because he is a transcendent genius far superior to the mere likes of Shakespeare.

MIKE: Like Franzen.

BOB: [laughing] You said it this time. I didn't. And so he decides to go after these guys more or less ad hominem, including Ben Jonson, who he decides to attack for his use of dangling prepositions, which makes him rethink his own use of prepositions, which cause him to expunge his past prepositional errors, and we have been left ever after with the notion that terminal prepositions are bad, bad, bad, and that's the very end of the story.

MIKE: You know, this is like that moment in the Agatha Christie movie when Hercule Poirot looks around the room, says who did it and why and then points to the attaché case and says I think that's where you'll find the revolver.

BOB: Right, and in this case the poet did it. John Dryden is escorted from the drawing room in handcuffs.

MIKE: Yeah, the poet did it.

["Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney & Wings plays:

When you were young and your heart was an open book

You used to say live and let live

(You know you did, you know you did, you know you did)

But if this ever-changing world in which we live in

Makes you give in and cry

Say live and let die ...]

MIKE: Before we issue our challenge, I wanna add a brief coda to this story.

BOB: Oh you're on stage in tights now like something out of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

MIKE: Yes, this is my epilogue. I will break the fourth wall, only this actually has something to do with the rest of the story. We've established that we think of Dryden as the butterfly who flapped his wings 300-plus years ago and caused a ripple effect through the centuries. I think there's this tendency to take remote history and kind of distill down to these discrete points on the timeline so we can say right there is when that all started. But, you know, it's not always so simple. I corresponded recently with a linguist at the University of Manchester—Nuria Yáñez-Bouza is her name—who a few years ago published her doctoral dissertation. It was called "Preposition Stranding and Prescriptivism in English from 1500 to 1900: A corpus-based approach."

BOB: Oh yeah, I saw the movie.

MIKE: You know, I thought the book was better. I thought the movie kind of dragged around 1700.

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: So, Yáñez-Bouza is a historical linguist with a particular interest in the English preposition. She's done some really fascinating statistical analyses of these terminal prepositions, focusing on the 18th century, going literally decade by decade and tracking the incidence of them as English prescriptivism got stronger and stronger. And as part of her research, she's uncovered a kind of caution against using terminal prepositions that predates Dryden by about 25 years or so.

BOB: A proto-scold.

MIKE: Yeah, I think of it the way I think of an Oxford English Dictionary earliest citation, which may be the earliest citation that we can find but it doesn't mean that that person coined that usage.

BOB: Well, another way of looking at it, Mike, is that others may have previously objected but it was the John Dryden objection which turned out to influence the entire world right up to my daughter's English teacher, who circles her dangling prepositions in red.

[MONTAGE of pop-culture references to preposition stranding]

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