Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Prepositional Art

Language is higher than a science; it is an art.  By this I do not mean that it has no rules.  In fact, I mean that we must master these rules, rather than letting ourselves be mastered by mere rules. 

You have, for example, no doubt heard that it was said by them of old time, Never end a sentence with a preposition.  But I tell you that such a rule is silly if followed absolutely. 

I find helpful in this regard the Chicago Manual of Style, the 15th edition of which has the following on page 188:

The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with prepositions is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction.  As Winston Churchill famously said, "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put."  A sentence that ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition...The "rule" prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition.

Consider also this word from the inimitable work of Strunk and White, page 112:

The question of ear is vital.  Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately; this writer knows for sure when a colloquialism is better than formal phrasing and is able to sustain the work at a level of good taste.  So cock your ear.  Years ago, students were warned not to end a sentence with a preposition; time, of course, has softened that rigid decree.  Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.  "A claw hammer, not an ax, was the tool he murdered her with."  This is preferable to "A claw hammer, not an ax, was the tool with which he murdered her."  Why?  Because it sounds more violent, more like murder.  A matter of ear.

Now, to be sure, let me say that I am not as loose with this rule as one might be tempted to conclude from my comments thus far.  I do think it should be kept to a greater extent than it is generally today.  The difference, again, is that between abandoning the rule, on the one hand, which I do not condone, and learning to rise above it and master it, on the other. 

Also, let me add that some of these books, such as the Chicago Manual, or Strunk & White, to illustrate when it would be preferable to ignore this rule, give specific examples with which I personally might not agree.  There is a degree of subjectivity involved here.

Now lest anyone conclude that what I advocate is the devolution of the language, it is worth pointing out that the rule of not ending a sentence with a preposition does not come to us from the classic age of the English language, but was part of the well intentioned and mostly brilliant enterprise of teaching that language later.  The King James Version of the Bible does not know this rule.  It violates it left and right.  Take, for example, this sentence from the fourth chapter of the Book of Judith:

Thus every man and women, and the little children, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, fell before the temple, and cast ashes upon their heads, and spread out their sackcloth before the face of the Lord: also they put sackcloth about the altar, and cried to the God of Israel all with one consent earnestly, that he would not give their children for a prey, and their wives for a spoil, and the cities of their inheritance to destruction, and the sanctuary to profanation and reproach, and for the nations to rejoice at.

Or this from Genesis, chapter 16:

And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.

Or this from John 4:

But he said unto them, I have meat to eat that ye know not of.

Nor does Shakespeare keep this rule, as we see, for example, when Queen Gertrude says in Hamlet:

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off.

Or, indeed, later, when Hamlet economically says:

Go on.

Of course, the list of examples could be multiplied.  But you get the point.  Finally, I am reminded of something Christopher Hitchens wrote in an essay against the decision of the Oakland School Board to treat "Ebonics" as an official "genetically based" dialect.  In the midst of a broader argument, in which he explains that those born in the British Isles tend to have very distinct local dialects, he pokes fun at the wooden nature to which the language can succumb when such rules are kept too religiously:

Margaret Thatcher had to take several courses in elocution to rid herself of bumpkin and awkward tones and to become the queenly figure that I left England to get away from. (To get away from whom, I mean to say, I left England.) (Unacknowledged Legislation, 232, in the article "Hooked on Ebonics")

16 comments:

Father Hollywood said...

The explanation that I've heard for the "don't end your sentences with a preposition" rule is because you can't do it in Latin (praepositio = a word that is "placed in front").

Of course, English isn't Latin, and what works in English doesn't have to work in Latin.

This calls to mind the old joke in which a student on campus asks an upperclassman: "Where's the library at?" and the older student scolds him for ending his sentence with a preposition. So the inquisitive student revises his question: "Where's the library at [expletive deleted]?"

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Nice. That made me laugh.

revalkorn said...

Father Hollywood beat me to it. Whenever someone calls me on ending a sentence with a preposition, I add an expletive to the end of the sentence.

Note: I do not do this with parishioners or anyone under 15 years of age.

Note: I do confess after doing this.

revalkorn said...

The other option is to speak like Yoda.

Not Alone +++ PAS said...

Prov. 17:7 Excellent speech becometh not a fool: much less do lying lips a prince.

Prov. 17:10 A reproof entereth more into a wise man than an hundred stripes into a fool.

Thus expletives follow correction. Such is the nature of the Old Adam.

Avoidance of the rule regarding prepositions leads us into laziness of speech.

In the example regarding the library, "at" is entirely unnecessary.

The report of the hammer murder could have been given as: "A claw hammer, not an ax, was the tool that he used to rip her life from her body."

The vulgar "Put up with" could be simply and more effectively stated as "endure."

I find no benefit in the excuses that are commonly made for changing the rules of grammar. In what ways has society benefited from such changes?

We simply become more lazy, vulgar, and insolent.

Correcting others who do not ask to be taught, is an arrogant waste of time. However, hearing such correction and applying it to oneself, has many benefits.

When speaking to the very young and poorly educated, the seemingly foreign sound of proper grammar, especially where terminal prepositions are at issue, often can be reduced by choosing other words that eliminate the need for the preposition, as in the case of "put up with."

This is my observation on the matter. As for myself, I prefer the challenge of learning to use the language in accord with the rules. I find that it encourages growth of my thinking skills and of my consideration of others. I believe that the proper use of grammar is a show of respect to the listener.

Oliver said...

Having been educated, in Hong Kong, under the British system, I admit to being somewhat of a "do not end sentences with prepositions" pedant; but more in writing than in speech.

Father Hollywood's joke brought a big smile to my face!

Revalkorn are you wearing your clerical collar when you add expletives to the end of a prepositionally ended sentence?

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Dear Pastor Siems:

I agree with portions of your argument. And you will note, for example, that I stated in my post that I do not agree necessarily with all of the examples given by guides like Strunk & White, or the Chicago Manual. That the end of sentence preposition is often used both when it absolutely shouldn't be and in debatable cases, however, in no way proves that it should never be used.

This rule is best viewed, not as a law, but as a principle which helps us to better communicate ideas in our rich, beautiful language. That it was never meant as an absolute rule is abundantly proved by the examples I gave from well before this rule achieved the unfortunate status of near dogma in the eighteenth century. Or do you really think that the King james translators, and William Shakespeare, were guilty of bad English?

It is simply misguided to take as a law of the English language a rule that hardly existed before the career of John Dryden.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Dear Oliver:

I would never call my brother in law a pedant. You are a needed balance against the ebonical zeitgeist. And I meant to congratulate you in person, when you were with us last month, on the achievement of your graduate degree. Sometimes my mind fails me at the crucial moment. But of course you and your family are always in my prayers.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Not Alone:

The [expletive deleted] comment was a joke. And notice that I used the [expletive deleted] rather than use an expletive. And in fact, most English expletives aren't blasphemous or even sinful - just biological references that are more rude than anything else - along the lines of some of Luther's scatological references, which one could hardly consider "sinful" (French Canadian expletives, on the other hand, are truly blasphemous).

The "rule" about prepositions is a pseudo-rule. It is a valid rule in Latin by its very nature, but such a rule simply isn't applicable to English. It doesn't translate. It would be like trying to impress the Spanish rule about using the upside-down question mark onto the English language.

It's like when people put on airs by using the indefinite article "an" before the letter "H" (as in "an historian" - which, in fact, reflects more of the lower-class English tendency to clip the H, as in: "'ello Guv'nuh!" Treating the "H" as an aspirate sound makes sense in French, but not English (or should I say "Henglish"?). :-)

But I do agree with you that we should teach grammar and expect it to be followed. That is not to say that some things can;t be carried too far - which I believe may be part of Br. Latif's point.

revalkorn said...

I make such comments to my wife, who knows I'm joking and who knows that my grammar usually needs no correction--unless I'm around those who use grammar as a bludgeon of arrogance. I usually don't end a sentence with a preposition, unless I know I'm talking to someone who sees such things as something they won't put up with. *wink*

And no, I'm not usually wearing a collar when I make such statements, though that shouldn't matter. I do not cease to be a pastor merely because I am not attired as such.

Oliver said...

Revalkorn - my collar question didn't imply you cease being a pastor when not wearing a collar (clothes do not make the man, or pastor), rather, my intent was to consider how an externally identified pastor might be perceived by those around them when making such statements.

Of course, such a situation helps to illustrate that we all (even pastors) are sinful and daily need to confess and repent of our sins.

Not Alone +++ PAS said...

Dear Latif,

As a moderately brief response, it seems to me that the KJV sometimes follows the order of the Hebrew or Greek. Shakespeare was not always writing with proper grammar as his intent, sometimes actually the opposite.

But ultimately, I concede that Solomon is correct in assessing that all is vanity. If someone else chooses to split infinitives or to ignore what has been taught regarding the placement of prepositions, in the end, it really does not matter.

I find myself frustrated when I do these things. I count it as laziness and bad habit.

I can say that making an effort to use proper grammar does have an effect and affect regarding my thoughts of others. It leads me to think more highly of them than of myself and it leads me to be more aware of what I am saying so as to try to be accurate in my choice of words. It leads me into a more humble state of mind and into an awareness of my need to keep learning.

Regardless of my ignorance as to when the "rule" originated, I find the rule to be of benefit. It has been taught as the standard for a very long time, even as the word "preposition" itself teaches and demands. As a rule of human language devised by humans, it can be changed by humans. Changes that are based upon laziness or rebelliousness generally if not always have a deleterious effect.

As for the use of expletives that some have defended, they are not funny. According to my sinful nature I laugh and as I see the evil of such things properly applied to my sinful nature, I laugh at myself. But this is a laughter of shame and embarrassment as I see my own sinfulness on display. To respond to correction in this manner is sin and folly. As a fool who often resists correction, I continually need to hear the Spirit's call to repentance. This is my point regarding the use of expletives.

Anyway, thanks for allowing me to be included in the discussion.

~ Paul

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Pastor Siems:

I'm glad to have you in the discussion. To be sure, there are many instances when the preposition at the end of not only a sentence, but even at the end of a clause, ought to be frowned upon. (The "upon" in the last sentence is not such an instance.) It requires discernment, or what Strunk & Whiles calls a well trained "ear."

King James is not the only Bible from the early 17th century which did not know about the absolute rule of the end of sentence preposition. For example, in the Douay-Rheims, which bases its translation not on the Hebrew and Greek, but on the Vulgate, we see any number of examples, such as these:

"And such as had stayed in Judea of them that came from among the nations had eaten the residue of all that which had been stored up." (1 Machabees 6)

"And he quickly broke the oath that he had taken and gave commandment to throw down the wall round about." (1 Mac. 6)

"and that he should give hostages and that which was agreed upon." (1 Mac. 8)

"And this rumour of him went forth throughout all Judea and throughout all the country round about." (Luke 7)

"Behold the feet of them who have buried thy husband are at the door, and they shall carry thee out." (Acts 5)

"Thy eyes are doves' eyes, besides what is hid within." (Song of Songs 4)

Other examples from the Bible could given given. Nor was Shakespeare the only poet who "violated" this rule.

In fact, let us look at the writings of John Dryden himself, the man who coined the rule of the end of sentence prepositions. Here is an example or two:

"Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their Heav'nly ways
To mend the choirs above." (From "A Song For St. Cecilia's Day")

"Thy brows with ivy and with laurels bound;
But fate and gloomy night encompass thee around." (From "To The Memory of Mr. Oldham")

Your absolutist view of both the "expletive" and of the preposition are concerning. These matters require of the thoughtful man discernment and prudence.

Father Hollywood said...

I happened to hear "Live and Let Live" today (the Guns and Roses version) which includes the line: "In this ever-changing world in which we live in" - and all that I could think of (or should I say, "all that of which I could think"?) was this conversation about the places which we should end our prepositions at ;-).

Also, there is indeed a matter of discernment in the matter of "expletives." The King James Version uses several words that would be considered expletives today, such as the word "p*ss", and also "stones" used to mean a part of the male anatomy - a word that is considered vulgar slang these days.

St. Paul himself makes an innuendo that is arguably not in the best taste when he speaks of circumcision and quips that he wishes his opponents would just go whole hog and cut the whole thing off (or, should I say, they should "off the whole thing should cut"?).

Again, I think a distinction ought to be made between blasphemous words and simply crude words. Is it really a sin to use words like f*rt or sh*t? Vulgar, yes. Crude, yes. Anglo-Saxon, definitely. But these are just single-syllable biological terms that lack grace and charm. Certainly, these words are cut from a different stock than using the Lord's name as a curse or as a careless interjection. That is more "expletive" than many of our English "words you can't say on television" (with props to the late Mr. Carlin).

Oliver said...

Father Hollywood - "I happened to hear "Live and Let Live" today (the Guns and Roses version) which includes the line: "In this ever-changing world in which we live in" " While "Live and Let Die" is an entertaining song (especially in the context of James Bond), I wouldn't put too much store in the linguistics stylings and grammatical standards of a certain Liverpudlian ;-)

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Good discussion, gentlemen. Thank you. Now if you will excuse me, I think I will take a cool shower (it's still about 80 in my apartment) and then focus on other matters for the night.