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goofy recently posted at bradshaw of the future about momentarily and some strange advice Grammar Girl sent out about it. Her advice:

“Don’t use momentarily to mean “in a moment”; you may confuse people. If you mean in a moment, say or write that. There’s no need to use momentarily in such cases, and doing so will irritate language purists.”

A quick note first: both the “in a moment” and “for a moment” meanings of momentarily have been around for 140 years, so the purists are completely unjustified in their complaint. Also, sure, there’s no need to use momentarily here, but then, there’s no need to ever use any given word. You can always paraphrase or re-write the sentence.

But the real question is two-fold: whether the benefits of using a questionable word outweighs its costs, and whether there’s a better word. You might think of this as a satisficing condition and an optimization condition.* And I suspect — although I don’t know if anyone’s studying this, or what they’ve found — that there’s some sort of a switch-off between the two methods depending on what production task you’re doing. When speed is one’s primary concern, presumably it’s sufficient to check that the word is beneficial; only when one has the luxury of time does full optimization kick in.

So is momentarily costly — i.e., will it confuse readers? goofy makes a good point about the potential confusion:

“If it’s more common for people to use momentarily to mean ‘in a moment’, then why advise people not to use it that way? It seems that Grammar Girl is essentially saying ‘don’t speak like everyone else in your speech community speaks.’ This seems counterproductive. […] it might confuse people – but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing?”

He gives the example of a pilot saying “we’ll land momentarily”, and notes that no one except for an uncooperative speaker will think “that means ‘for a moment’!” But one might harbor doubts. Maybe no one will end up with that interpretation, but maybe they’ll be distracted by it during interpretation. Yeah, that’s certainly possible — but listeners are more adept at ignoring irrelevant ambiguities that we tend to give them credit for.

The famous example from introductory linguistics classes of this is Time flies like an arrow. The first time someone sees this sentence, it just sounds like a standard aphorism, and the only meaning they’re likely to seriously consider is “time moves in a swift manner, akin to an arrow”. But this sentence is ambiguous, of course, as almost all sentences are. Many of the words have different senses and different parts of speech that they can take on.

If we switch from a Noun-Verb-Preposition reading of time flies like to an Noun-Noun-Verb one, we get: “‘Time flies’ (as opposed to houseflies or gadflies) appreciate an arrow”. There’s also a Verb-Noun-Preposition reading, yielding an imperative: “as though you were an arrow, record the time the flies take to complete a task”. There are other interpretations, too, but none of these is likely enough, given our world-knowledge and parsing probabilities, to register in our minds. We can reasonably expect that Time flies like an arrow will be correctly understood, without time lost to alternative interpretations, by any audience that isn’t actively looking for implausible interpretations.

So too should we expect momentarily to be correctly understood; claiming to have difficulty with it marks the complainer, not the speaker, as the one who doesn’t understand language. As an editor, one generally ought to foolproof writing, looking for and eliminating potential (even if fairly unlikely) misinterpretations. But there’s a difference between editing to protect fools from ambiguity and editing to protect uncooperative readers from ambiguity. The former is difficult, but generally doable. The latter is often simple, but generally worthless.**

Let me conclude with a good question from Jonathon Owen in the comments on goofy’s post:

“And if the problem is simply that purists will be annoyed, why not direct our efforts to teaching the purists not to be annoyed rather than teaching everyone else to avoid offending this very small but very vocal set of peevers?”

*: “Satisificing” is an idea I’m fond of, though one that doesn’t get talked about much outside of human decision-making tasks. In the familiar optimization strategy, you’re trying to find the best of all possible options, whereas a satisficing strategy is just looking for any option that’s better than some threshold. For instance, if you go to the store with two dollars and need to buy milk, you can optimize by comparing multiple sub-$2 cartons before picking the best of that lot, or you can employ a satisifice by buying the first carton that costs less than two dollars.

Satisificing is generally faster and, if I remember my undergrad psych classes correctly, is common in human decision-making processes, especially when time is of the essence.

**: One exception, presumably, is in legal writing/contracts.


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.

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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.

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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".

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