Friday, October 30, 2009

That is an impertinence up with which I shall not put

I'm going to be pedantic again. Detail-oriented. Be warned. Stop reading if you think, "Only the plot matters!" This isn't about plot. This is about an issue we face often in editing, and you don't have to think this is important. But you know, editors are the ones who should think this kind of thing is important. Someone has to care. Sniffle.

Some usage rules come out of a distant past when Latin grammar was presumed to be the standard, and one of those is "never split an infinitive," easy enough to obey in Latin (infinitives are one word), but not so easy in English, with its two-word infinitives. Anyway, William Shatner did what William Shakespeare feared to do, boldly splitting an infinitive on national TV ("To boldly go where no man has gone before," vs. "To be or not to be," see).

And I am not going against Captain Kirk!

But actually, I want to talk about prepositions. Another old rule is that you aren't supposed to end a sentence on a preposition. (I don't know if this is based on Latin-- do you know Latin was the ONLY class I ever failed? Really. I did get a D-- a total gift-- in Matter, Energy, and Organization, and you'll know why when I tell you I don't even know what that title means.) This rule engendered Churchill's inimitably lofty comment: "That is an impertinence up with which I shall not put." But you know, it's not a bad rule completely. That is, sometimes a sentence-ending prep is fine, and sometimes it's a signal that your thought is incomplete.

(What's a preposition? It's one of those usually little words that describe some connection-- usually time or space-- between two things. These are not always logical-- I notice that a whole generation logically says "on accident"-- why not, when there's "on purpose"? And in NYC, they stand "on line" where most everywhere else, we stand "in line". This is the hardest thing for non-native speakers to get, even harder than articles. After all, a native speaker would probably never use the wrong article -- a for an, maybe, but that's more a dialect thing. But even the most adept native speaker occasionally messes up on a preposition, and they can differ by region too. Anyway, there are lots of prepositions, and most of the constructions that use them are not too complex. In fact, they'd be utterly ignored if we weren't all concerned about That Rule.)

The first exception is the "verb+"-- many English verbs take a preposition. Usually the preposition is the distinguishing factor: Look up, look down, look over, look away-- those are all different actions, and so really, though the base verb is "look," each compound term means something different because of the preposition. The preposition word is being used as an adverb, modifying the verb. Part of the eternal growability of English is that many verbs can be mutated by adding a preposition as a modifier. It's okay (though not always strong) to end a sentence on one of these compound predicates:
She looked up.

It's really ending on the verb, right?

Now I recently came across a great example of a preposition-ended sentence. It's from the song with the beautiful melody but ugly name-- Big Log by Robert Plant.

My love is in league with the freeway
Its passion will ride, as the cities fly by

"Fly by" is one of those compound predicates-- "fly by" or "fly away" or "fly over"-- they're all diffferent. "Fly by" is particular evocative in this song, as it's exactly what happens on a freeway-- the cities fly by-- or rather, we do, in the cars. This is, btw, a terrific example of an extended metaphor (love is like a freeway, being in love is like being on the run), with wonderful uses of "car" motifs like the rearview mirror:

Eyes in the mirror, still expecting they'll come
Sensing too well, when the journey is done
There is no turning back, no. There is no turning back, on the run.

Extended metaphors are probably more effective in poetry and in song than in fiction, but boy, would it impress me to see as graceful a metaphor as this in prose.

Also there's a later line that never gets transcribed right ("should I rest for awhile on the side" or "should I rest for awhile and decide" are the common transcriptions, but listen)--

My love is exceeding the limit,
Red-eyed and fevered with the hum of the miles
Distance and longing, my thoughts do collide
Should I rest for awhile beside?

Probably there's an elliptical "you" or some other object of that preposition (beside the road?), but leaving it elliptical not only completes the rhyme, but also focuses the attention on the singer's question here-- should he rest? And it's much sexier too-- resting beside. And remember that the last word in a sentence is a power position, and so ending on "beside" can make that position powerful. (I suspect that getting rid of the object there, the "you" or "the road," makes "beside" an adverb, answering the "where" question... funny how a word can change role that way!)

Anyway, lovely song, lovely metaphor, such control in the writing!

So back to prepositions. Here's a BAD preposition-end, and here's where I say take this as a clue that something is missing (paraphrased, but same preposition):
The mutineers were made an example of.

What's wrong? Well, it's a passive sentence-- "the mutineers" is supposed to be the object of that preposition, but it's in the subject position. The passive construction means that the sentence has to end on "of" because the object is being used elsewhere. The problem usually with the passive construction is that it lets the true actor (who ever did the making of example) off the hook. There are reasons to do that (if you don't know the true actor-- "She was murdered at 1 am"-- or the true actor isn't important-- "She was buried Tuesday at Forest Hills Cemetery"), but usually the actor of the action belongs in the subject position, and if you do that, you probably won't have that orphaned preposition:
The Navy made an example of the mutineers.

That is, the prep-ending is a clue that the thought is incomplete. In fact, I would probably add the "how"-- how did the Navy make an example of the mutineers? (unless I wanted to be mysterious).

Point is, the rule is only a suggestion, okay? It's based in real logic-- generally, a preposition is followed by an object, so look and see if you've misplaced or ignored the object. But because there are allowances for exceptions, you have more flexibility here-- you can see what meaning each possibility creates. And of course, violating a rule is always subversively exciting, and stop laughing. Okay, it's not as subversive as shooting heroin or swimming nude, but for a writer, it's pretty thrilling.

So think of it this way-- the more rules you understand, the more you can violate. :)



JohnO said...

From my half-assed Google search, the general vibeliness of the posts I read indicates that this rule too is a hangover from the Latin. (It's like a red wine hangover, but your head hurts worse from the declension.)

But you're right, it is a case where you have to have an ear for the English as she is more beautifuller, as otherwise you end up with the truly ganky "Where is he at?" (they say this in Oklahoma).

Or, if you're A.A. Milne, you break the rule to come up with something truly sublime, as when Pooh says, "Would you be so kind as to tow me to a muddy place of which I know, of?"

Edittorrent said...

I know-- there's a wonderfulness when this is violated in the right way!!!

Kathleen MacIver said...

I found this very interesting, because the curriculum that I'm homeschooling my kids with (which is used nationwide my thousands of schools), teaches that those words, like up, down, by, etc. which are prepositions, can also be adverbs. And that's what it teaches that they are in those sentences. Look where? Look down! So down modifies look.

But apparently this isn't the way that everyone explains/teaches this usage. Hmmmm... I wonder if I should teach my kids differently.

Sylvia said...

My mother taught me a handy-dandy rule for spotting prepositions when I was ten:

The squirrel peed ________ the tree.

The words that fill the blank (upon, around, over, up, behind, at) are prepositions.

Although now I've noticed that it doesn't work for "of" - oh no! Another childhood truth, destroyed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very informative post. I've been wondering when I need to fix up my darned prepositional phrases versus when they're okay. I love the blog, by the way! Thanks so much for all the beginning/middle/advanced lessons.

Edittorrent said...

I am teaching the squirrel pee test to Danger Boy the instant he gets home from basketball practice. If ever there was a rule that child needs to learn, that's it right there.

Speaking of Oklahomans' "Where are you at?" construction, Chicagoans have a regional compoundism, too. My friends used to tease me about this one when I live in Indy. "I'm going to the movies. You want to go with?" Outsiders hear that as elliptical.

Kathleen, I think that you can diagram these as adverbs. Nothing wrong with the teaching method in your homeschool materials. Alicia is just providing another way to think about these little words.

Leona said...

Apparently, my comment didn't post :( Thanks again for this timely post. One of the things my MIL pointed out when editing one of my stories is that I tend to leave prepostitions dangling at the end and I'm not supposed to.

Sometimes, I fixed them, but others, I left them. I didn't have this nice little post then to help guide me on what to fix.

I don't know about Oklahoma, but in Washington, it is perfectly normal to say, "Where are you at?" I hadn't thought of it as being bad grammar before. LOL

I'll be re-reading this post offten, I'm sure!

Anonymous said...

Kathleen, yes, those take on the role of adverbs when used in a compound predicate like "look up". And it's okay to end a sentence on an adverb, right? :) Life is good. It's like they're prepositions, but become adverbs. I think they're sort of like zombies. Hey, if verbs can be vampires, why not? (The Transitive Vampire.)

Dave Shaw said...

"Where are you at?" is so inefficient. In SC, it's "Where you at?" Of course, that's at least 5 syllables when pronounced correctly, and 6 syllables will earn bonus points. 8-)

Jami Gold said...


Thanks for this. I knew there was a reason that I was ignoring my word processor's complaint about how I'd ended with a preposition. It's always a good feeling when I know more than the computer program. :) *thumbing my nose at it* "It's an adverb there, so nya!" LOL!

Jami G.

JohnO said...

Oh hecksafus, does "The squirrel peed ____ the tree" ever want to make me teach writing again! I'm imagining taking my most recalcitrant student and making him the tree, while I, a.k.a. Professor Squirrel, prepositionalize him.

And it's probably just the absurdist in me, but "The squirrel peed of the tree" is my favorite construction of them all.

Eva Gale said...

Way back when Ann Peach (RIP) was on the Romantic Times boards she gave a long lesson on prepostions and used two of the same examples-how she wouldn't answer her nephew's when they ended thier sentences with them (Aunt Ann, where you at?) and W. Churchill's famous line.

And, another homeschooler here. I just told my 11 yo son the squirrel sentence and *Eureka* he totally got it. *g*

Eva Gale said...

Woops, a kitten just died.

(I pluralized with an apostrophe)