Thursday, August 7, 2008

Prepositions, ending with

Alicia here-
Notice that Theresa writes all that great info about the conference, and I'm fixated on single words. I have always thought of myself as a "big picture" type person, but I'm re-imaging my self-image. I'm beginning to think I'm, horrors, a pedant. Or as Lynn Truss (Eats, Shoots, and Leaves-- fabulous book if you love punctuation -- actually, Theresa gave it to me!) would term it, I am a stickler.
Just a quick stickler note because I came across this issue lately --

The "rule" that you should never end a sentence with a preposition is really incompatible with the English language. English has a lot of predicates which are verb+preposition (just look at "look": look at, look over, look towards, look away from, look up, look down...) and so often when you end a sentence on one of these predicates (perfectly correct), you end up with a preposition as the last word of the sentence:

He glanced over.
She looked up.
He didn't know what this was about. (Was about is actually the full predicate there, I think.)
A preposition? Well, that's what the sentence ended with.

"Fixing" this often ends up with a sentence like Churchill's classic: "That is an impertinence up with which I will not put."

All due respect to Churchill, who knew exactly what to do with the English language... he's right. Fixing often makes for even more awkward sentences. But, well, if you can, rewrite it. Why? Because a preposition really not a great way to end a sentence. The last word of a sentence, like the first, should ideally have some power, and a preposition is always going to be a bit lame, because it's a "position" word, not a noun or verb (which carry, respectively, concreteness and vitality). Also, you're bound to run into a reader (or an editor) who knows the rule but not the exceptions, and so thinks you're wrong even if you're not. (I don't do that much, but I recklessly use "hopefully" as a sentence adverb-- Hopefully, the picnic won't be rained out-- and always when I'm with my father-in-law, who regards "hopefully" as a barbarism akin to cannibalism and hence looks upon me with suspicion now, especially when I ask him to pass the mustard.)

Anyway, whenever you break a "rule," stop and see if you can recast the sentence to avoid it. (If the "wrong" way is the best way, you'll learn that by trying and failing to recast it.) Just experiment. The original sentence won't fly away if you try a few others. It'll wait patiently for you to come abjectly back and beg forgiveness. :)

Here's the sentence, very simple, that started me on this (context so it will make more sense-- this is about a young woman on her 4th marriage, and the dilemma is, should the heroine attend the wedding and give yet another present to the oft-bride, and I'm modifying the original to make the point while disguising it, so I apologize for the clumsiness-- it wasn't so awkward to start with):
She might have fewer weddings if she didn't think of them as fun parties she got lots of presents at.

Easy to fix, once you decide that you're going to get rid of that awkward ending prep:
She might have fewer weddings if she didn't think of them as fun parties where she got lots of presents.

Not that prepositions can NEVER end sentences (as I ranted during that semicolon argument I mean debate, never say never). But while I will fight to the death for your right to do that when it works, usually there's a better way to cast the sentence.


Edittorrent said...

I think of the second words in those combos (look up, slide over) not as prepositions but as adverbs, because really, they're modifying the verb.


Nic said...

You make a good point about not ending with prepositions because they're not powerful, regardless of that silly rule. Passive voice is perfectly correct English, but that doesn't make it good writing either.

I just get a bit steamed up when people tell me that rule has anything to do with the English language at all, because it doesn't. It's a Latin grammar rule that scholars hundreds of years ago tried to impose upon the English language because they thought Latin was superior. Maybe I think the Japanese language is intrinsically superior to English, but that doesn't mean telling people to construct English sentences "(optional subject) object verb," like Japanese does, instead of the natural English "subject verb object" makes any sense.

Edittorrent said...

Linguists now will say that every language is fine-- no one language is superior. It was just that "Latin is BETTER" attitude that had the early English grammarians adoption a completely WRONG set of rules (rules right for Latin, not English), and so we get also the "never split an infinitive" rule, and a generation of pedants sniffing that Captain Kirk is wrong "to boldly go," when he's RIGHT!
Go, Cap'n Kirk!