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Prepositions? What are you talking about?

BY: HOWARD RICHLER

Freshman: “Sir, can you tell me where the dining hall is at?” Professor: “Don’t you know that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition?” Freshman: “OK, can you tell me where the dining hall is at, asshole?”

From the time we entered high school we were taught not to end sentences with a preposition; to do so was ungrammatical. Why it was ungrammatical was never explained.

Mind you, there were some rebels who discounted this prescription. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, written in 1925 by Henry and Francis Fowler, stated: “It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be kept true to their name and placed before the word.” Fowler adds that this practice was seen as “inelegant” and “represents what used to be a very general belief, and is not yet dead.” Almost a century later, the canard is still not properly dead and buried.

In an attempt to give this “superstition” a proper funeral, I thought it might be instructive to explain how it came about in the first place. If we must fault some group or person, the blame falls on English Puritans and Dryden; John, not Ken.

John Dryden was a late-17th-century poet and playwright who took umbrage that the public preferred the plays of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare over his, particularly because these gentlemen had been deceased for over 50 years.

When his play The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards was staged in 1672, he ended it with an epilogue criticizing his audience’s greater appreciation of the works of Shakespeare and Jonson over his and those of his contemporaries, and asserted that his own plays were far wittier.

Two years later he published this play in book form and added an essay in which he chastised the Immortal Bard for his “carelessness and … lethargy of thought.”

One of Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s faux pas was allowing sentences to end in prepositions such as in As You Like It, when Rosalind says to Orlando: “Who do you speak to?” He was particularly scathing in an essay to Jonson’s play Catiline: “The … dens of beasts could not receive the bodies that those souls were frighted from.”

Dryden characterized the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence by Jonson and his ilk as “a common fault.”

Dryden realized that in some of his previous works he too had ended sentences with prepositions and went back and corrected passages where he had committed this postpositional sin.

Dryden’s Law represents the first time this dictate had been invoked by any writer. It was an age where Latin was regarded as the most sublime language and notwithstanding that Latin exhibited much flexibility, it was not possible to put a preposition at the end of a Latin sentence. In English, though, it is possible, and grammatical to boot, which explains why such writers as Shakespeare had done so. Expecting English, a Germanic language, to conform to Latinate rules makes as much sense as expecting an English bishop to pray to Jupiter.

Dryden’s prescription caught on and by the 18th century while ending a sentence in a preposition would not get you drawn or quartered, it was nevertheless regarded as very poor form. In Bishop Robert Lowth’s 1762 A Short Introduction to English Grammar, he avers, “placing a preposition inside a sentence is more graceful and perspicacious and much better with the solemn and elevated style.”

A century later, in Henry Alford’s 1864 The Queen’s English, we read, “There is a peculiar use of prepositions which is allowable in moderation but must not be too often resorted to. It is the placing of them at an end of a sentence as I have done in the words ‘resorted to’.”

So now that we know that Dryden’s dictate not to end a sentence with a preposition was basically a publicity stunt to elevate his stature and diminish the standing of Shakespeare and Jonson, I hope you will agree with me that it represents pedantic nonsense up with which we should not put.

hrichler@gmail.com

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