Stranding prepositions (or not)

I had seen several approving references to the book Origins of the specious: Myths and misconceptions of the English language by Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, and last week saw a copy on sale, so I bought it. They generally do a very good job of explaining why most of the prescriptivists’ ‘rules’ are wrong (of course, I already knew about most of it), but I have to disagree with them on half of one point.

I agree with them that it’s a myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. They trace the “final-preposition bugaboo” (their words) to John Dryden (who complained that Ben Johnson put “the Preposition in the end of the sentence: a common fault with him”) then add “The bee in Dryden’s bonnet later took up residence in the miter of an eighteenth-century Anglican bishop, Robert Lowth, who wrote the first popular grammar book to claim that a preposition didn’t belong at the end of a sentence in formal writing”.

No he didn’t.

Later, they write that he “condemned the preposition at the end of a sentence”.

No he didn’t.

Later again, they refer to Lowth as “the fellow who helped popularize the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition”.

If he did, if was because those who read his book misunderstood what he’d written.

What did he actually write?

He wrote:

“This [ending a sentence (more correctly, a clause) with a preposition] is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.” 

Firstly, note that he wrote “an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to”, not “to which our language is strongly inclined”. In a published book. On English grammar.

In reverse order, “it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition” – where is the word “wrong” in that quotation? “Condemned” – nope; how can he possibly condemn something he’s just used in the previous sentence? “Didn’t belong … in formal writing” – nope again. All he said is that “to which our language is strongly inclined” is “better” in formal writing and speech. Utterly no-one would disagree with him about that. 

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum devote six pages to what they call preposition stranding. Being thorough prescriptivists, they don’t use words like ‘better’ and ‘worst’, but rather ‘allowed’, ‘common’, ‘rare’, ‘not allowed’, ‘formal’, ‘informal’, ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’. They list eight constructions in which (see what I did there?) preposition is even possible, in half of which (hmmm …) preposition fronting is not an option. They then continue: 

There is a tendency for preposition stranding to be avoided in the most formal style. [For example, a deeply serious funeral oration]. But in most contexts stranding will often be considered more appropriate than the fronting construction, Stranded prepositions are not even markers of distinctively informal style. They are found in nearly all styles. We will see below that there are conditions under which stranding is preferred over PP fronting, and the use of PP fronting in such cases runs the risk of creating an impression of pedantry or stuffiness.

(My usual example of the latter is a parent asking a teenager “With whom did you have lunch?”)

Lowth may have been a fuddy-duddy, and he may have erred on the side of “solemn and elevated Style” and Latinised analyses of English, but he didn’t claim it didn’t belong, he didn’t condemn it, he didn’t say it’s wrong, and he used it quite naturally.  

Most modern references to him ignore his Doctorate of Divinity with a thesis on biblical Hebrew poetry, his Oxford professorship in poetry and his fellowship of the Royal Society. He was no academic slouch.

Of course, you can’t end just any old sentence with. There are actually very strong rules about.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s