You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘final prepositions’ tag.

It’s March 4th again, which means that it’s National Grammar Day again, which means that it’s time to dig through the archives again and pull out some of the grammar myths that have been debunked here on Motivated Grammar this year. And that is the only fun part about National Grammar Day for me.

If you’re new here, you might be surprised at that. “But Gabe!” you cry, “Aren’t you all about grammar? Wouldn’t you love a day celebrating it?” And my response to that question is a curt no. You see, I’m all about grammar and language and the like. Hell, I’m in grad school studying it. But when most people say they’re interested in grammar, they mean they’re interested in learning a set of rules. And the rules they’re trying to learn hold about as much relationship to English as runway models’ clothes hold to the clothes in your wardrobe. These grammar rules — or to be more accurate, myths — are viewed as signs of high culture and linguistic erudition, but the truth is that they are far from the truth, and are at best harmless.

At their worst, these myths serve as a means for those who shout the loudest to shut up those who meekly try to use the language. I’ve known many people who’ve sought to improve their grammatical knowledge, only to be dismayed by the sheer number of un- and counter-intuitive rules that met them. In fact, in my younger years I was one of them. For you see, I grew up in a working-class family in a working-class town, and I thought that one of the keys to class mobility was an impeccable command of the English language. (As Peter Gabriel put it in “Big Time”, I was stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out.) And that command, I thought, would come through the study of grammatical primers.

But like my failed attempt to master the rules of etiquette, my attempt to master the so-called rules of grammar too met with defeat, as I found myself unable to keep so many seemingly arbitrary rules in my head. And so I gave up and figured I could learn all I needed to know about the English language by observation of skilled writers and speakers. I spent some substantial effort in high school mimicking the speech styles of friends whose speech I admired, and the writing style of good authors.

Through it all, though, I kept entertaining the notion that I’d eventually know all the rules. And then, over the course of a couple years and a couple courses in linguistics, I came to realize that my very goal was a load of hokum. Yes, there are rules to English, like verb conjugation, or that adjectives usually precede nouns. But every native speaker already knows these rules. The ones discussed in the books, the ones I was trying to learn, they’re just nits to pick. And the nits aren’t even ones that correspond to any real form of English anyway.

If you want to know the rules of English, look in an English-as-a-second-language textbook, not Strunk and White. If you want to know how to use English effectively, read and listen to those whose language you enjoy and admire. Good English is constrained by rules, not defined by them.

But now I’m rambling, so let me stop that and move on to presenting the truth behind ten of these minor myths that people dress up as rules. I’ve included a brief summary of why the myth is untrue, but for the full story, follow the links:

There’s nothing wrong with anyways. Anyway is the more common form, but that’s a historical accident. Related forms always and sometimes are more common than their s-less companions, so clearly anyways isn’t inherently ungrammatical.

Nothing’s wrong with center around. Despite the claims that this usage is logically inconsistent, and that centers on is necessary, center around has been a valid part of English for around 200 years now. No reason to stop now.

There’s not just one right way to say something. Do you worry if the past tense of dive is dived or dove? Or do you worry about shined and shone? Well, a lot of the time there isn’t a single right or best way of saying it. As it turns out, a lot factors can affect the decision. And often it’s best to go with your gut feeling.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is always acceptable. The myth that it isn’t is the result of a half-baked argument John Dryden concocted in the 17th century to explain why he was a better playwright than Ben Jonson. He was wrong about being better than Jonson, and he was wrong about the prepositions, too. Unfortunately, three-and-a-half centuries of people have fallen for his myth.

“Ebonics” isn’t lazy English. Ebonics, or African-American Vernacular English as linguists generally call it, isn’t a deficient form of English. It’s a dialect, or possibly even a creole, of English with its own distinctive and systematic syntactic, phonological, and morphological features.

Gender-neutral language isn’t bad language. Using words like spokesperson doesn’t harm the language, and doesn’t start us down some slippery slope where the word human will have to be replaced by huperson or something. Similarly, using they to refer to a single person of unknown gender is a usage that’s been going on for centuries.

Ms. is a standard and useful abbreviation. Sure, Ms. is newer than Mrs. and Miss, but it’s a standard title. It’s a good solution to the asymmetry that female titles depend on maritial status and the male title does not.

Jealous can be used to mean envious. Some people try to claim that jealousy and envy are totally distinct, but they’re not, and they’ve been used in overlapping senses since Chaucer’s time.

And a few myths from other blogs:

Non-literal literally is perfectly standard. This one’s a three-fer. Stan Carey, me, and Dominik Lukes all wrote posts, each inspired by the other, about non-literal uses of literally. All of us share the conclusion that non-literal literally has been used for years, by writers good and bad, and is here to stay. But the three of us disagree on whether or not it’s a stylistically good usage. I found this an interesting exercise in seeing how different descriptivists dispense usage advice.

A lot of what gets called “passive” isn’t really. Language commentators often denigrate an impersonal usage by calling it a “passive”, and demanding that it be converted to an active form. But lots of impersonal forms are active already, and there isn’t anything wrong with the passive anyway(s). Geoff Pullum explains the English passive over at Language Log.

Redundancy doesn’t make something ungrammatical or unacceptable. Stan Carey points out that English is threaded through with redundancy, so it’s clear that redundancy isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, given that we’re communicating with people who might not catch the full message (or be paying full attention), redundancy is often a logical thing to add to your language.

Lastly, if you want another 20 myths debunked (or another 20 minutes’ break from work), check out our Grammar Day mythbusting from 2010 and 2009.

[Update 03/04/2012: Another National Grammar Day means ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

Every time I mention the no-sentence-final-prepositions rule as an example of unfounded prescriptivism, I always get a response from someone along the lines of “Oh, no prescriptivist actually believes that anymore.” I assure you some still do. Others have rejected the blanket prescription that all sentence-final prepositions are unacceptable, but they’ve replaced that idea with a strange half-prescription that only some final prepositions are okay. In either case, they’re still wrong.

Let’s review the basic history of the idea that you shouldn’t end clauses (especially complete sentences) with prepositions. The entire idea that there is something wrong with sentence-final prepositions was popularized by John Dryden back in the 17th century. Looking over a play by Ben Jonson from 1611 (around 60 years before Dryden was writing), Dryden remarked on Jonson’s line “The bodies that those souls were frighted from“, noting

“The Preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observ’d in my own writings.”

Dryden never saw fit to explain why this sentence-final preposition was a fault.* Before, during, and after the 17th century, sentence-final prepositions have been commonplace in speech and writing. No one’s ever really had a good explanation for why they’re opposed to them. The only reason you’d want to avoid clause-final prepositions is that they aren’t common in formal writing, and that’s the case largely because of the misguided prohibition against them.

But mistaken beliefs die the hardest, and so people still occasionally point out sentence-final prepositions to me as an obviously bad thing. It’s irritating enough when these are people who have no reason to know any better and are merely reciting out-of-date prescriptions. It’s much worse when it’s someone who clearly should know better out there advocating that there is a germ of truth in the preposition lie. For instance, I saw on Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Grammar Myths that she says it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. But only sometimes:

You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition when the sentence would mean the same thing if you left off the preposition. That means ‘Where are you at?’ is wrong because ‘Where are you?’ means the same thing. But there are many sentences where the final preposition is part of a phrasal verb or is necessary to keep from making stuffy, stilted sentences: ‘I’m going to throw up,’ ‘Let’s kiss and make up,’ and ‘What are you waiting for’ are just a few examples.”

So don’t allow a sentence-final preposition unless the revision is worse. But that advice only makes sense if there is something inherently wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. Note that (like Dryden) Grammar Girl does not address the issue of why sentence-final prepositions are ever bad, instead taking it as given. In fact, in a longer piece on sentence-final prepositions, she writes

When you could leave off the preposition and it wouldn’t change the meaning, you should leave it off. Really, I can’t believe anyone would make such a silly mistake!”

Apparently it’s such a silly mistake that it need not be justified. But if sentence-final prepositions are so silly, then presumably you can only leave them in if the alternative is really awkward, even more awkward than the silly sentence-final prepositions would be.

If we look back at Grammar Girl’s acceptable final-preposition sentences — “I’m going to throw up,” “Let’s kiss and make up,” and “What are you waiting for?” — it’s trivial to make reasonable versions without the final prepositions: “I’m going to barf”, “Let’s kiss and reconcile,” “Why are you waiting?”. If you find sentence-final prepositions to be worth avoiding, I can’t see why you wouldn’t switch to these prepositionless alternatives. Unless, and I’m only going out on a limb here, your proscription is totally arbitrary.

You might argue, as I think Grammar Girl is doing, that there’s a difference in that the for in What are you waiting for? needs to be in the sentence as written, while the at in Where are you at? could be omitted. The latter sentence therefore goes against Strunk & White’s famous Omit Needless Words dictum. However, as many reasonable people have pointed out (look at this Jan Freeman column, for instance), Omit Needless Words is not a grammar rule of English, no matter how hard Strunk & White try to convince you otherwise. In fact, let me illustrate it with part of the first sentence of Grammar Girl’s own article:

” […] ending a sentence with a preposition is often unfairly labeled ‘undesirable grammar construction number one’ by people who were taught that prepositions have a proper place in the world […]”

All three of those bolded words could be removed without hurting the syntax of the sentence. That would leave us with the sentence “[it’s labelled undesirable by] people taught prepositions have a proper place in the world”, which is a real rubbish sentence. Sure, you could remove these words, but you’ll make the sentence hard to parse. If you want even stronger examples of Omit Needless Words taking you places you don’t want to go, consider these two famously incomprehensible psycholinguistic examples:

(1a) The horse raced past the barn fell.
(1b) The coach smiled at the player tossed the frisbee.

It is often good to avoid wordiness and rambling. Brevity is the soul of wit and all that. (I’m sure that, after getting this far into this post, you doubt I believe either of those statements.) But there is a difference between rambling and including a two-letter preposition of debatable necessity. You are not required to drop every word you can, nor are you supposed to. Merely being able to remove a word is not sufficient reason to do so.

Grammar Girl should know that, and at some unconscious level, she does. A reader pointed out that she herself said in one podcast “That’s where it’s at.” That’s standard in informal English, because you don’t end sentences with it’s**, and adding at suddenly makes the sentence valid again. But instead of noting this as evidence against the made-up preposition-proscription, she embarrassedly apologized for it. There’s no need to. You know it’s right, Grammar Girl! To thine own language be true.

Summary: There’s no reason to muck about with silly half-proscriptions. Clause- and sentence-final prepositions are always grammatical, although they can sound informal due to the 400 years of exile they’ve had to endure. Listen to your sentence and decide for yourself whether the final preposition sounds appropriate for the formality level you’re aiming at.

*: David Crystal, in The Fight for English, notes that Dryden was against ending sentences with “an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word” because this reduced their “strength”, but he gave no further reason, nor any reason specific to prepositions. And Dryden regularly broke this rule, ending sentences in his own grammar book with such inconsiderable words as it or him.

**: I was tempted to say you don’t end sentences with any contractions, but then I remembered the once-cool Jimmy Eat World song If You Don’t, Don’t. I think only not-contractions can end sentences, but I’m not willing to bet on it.

Post Categories

The Monthly Archives

About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

@MGrammar on twitter

Recent Tweets

If you like email and you like grammar, feel free to subscribe to Motivated Grammar by email. Enter your address below.

Join 980 other followers

Top Rated

%d bloggers like this: