Doomsday Prepositioners

Today I was going to get all wide-eyed and giggly about that miraculous carbon, especially about graphene, Vantablack, flexible OLEDs, and all the other stuff I think will make Star Trek happen. Solid Friday fare, you know?

But that’ll have to wait. I’ve just come from a [s]troll through an Internet forum, so I’m going to rant about grammar awhile. Not about the grammar people use, but about the grammar people tell other people to use.

I know few of you obsess as much about words as I do. Thank goodness. Most people are much more inclined toward usefulness and productivity than I, and as much as that ensures the continuation of our species and the periodic creation of amazing new Reese’s Peanut Butter-based products, it also means that some bad ideas about language haven’t been quashed as they ought to have been.

Like the throwing of shade against deferred prepositions.

If you’ve ever been exposed to a high school English class, or at least 74 consecutive seconds of American pop culture, or the back of any cereal box from the 1950s, then you’ve probably been taught that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. It’s the go-to rule of people who want to sound as language-authoritative as they can while committing themselves to as little effort as possible.

The problem is, it’s not a rule of English grammar. It’s a rule based in Latin grammar, and is actually a pollution of Latin grammar.

In Latin, the rule isn’t that sentences can’t end in prepositions, but that clauses can’t end in prepositions. More accurately, the rule requires prepositions to pre-position (Get it?) their objects, meaning that they come before and not after. Since the preposition regularly precedes its object, it rarely comes at the end of a clause or sentence.

But either way, we don’t speak Latin!

We can thank John Dryden, perennial downer and Latin fanboy, for inflicting centuries of cankerous grief upon our language. In his 1672 Defence of the Epilogue, he criticizes Ben Jonson‘s use of clause-final prepositions as a part of his quest to prove that he’s a better playwright and poet than Jonson (and Fletcher and Shakespeare and pretty much everyone else who ever put quill to parchment). Sometime after that, some well-intentioned English teacher at PS 358 caught a nasty case of Dry-phoid, and the rest, as they say, is hysteria.

I think it’s strangely poetic. Not only have we been taught to adhere to a foreign grammatical structure, but we’ve been taught to adhere to an incorrect interpretation of a foreign grammatical structure. Sure, English is the adorable love child of German and Latin-based French, but kids can grow up and make their own syntactic choices. English has the chance to take its diverse inheritance and become something truly awesome—the Schokolade-covered pommes frites we’ve all been waiting for. Instead of taking a page out of Dryden’s Illustrated Latin Grammar Primer, I’d rather climb onto the brown-shoes-and-belt-with-a-black-suit-esque bandwagon with Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Byron, James Thurber, Robert Frost, and every other writer who rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s and kept the fun, spicy stuff for him- or herself.

Of course there are times that call for more formality (when the bailiff instructs you and your defense attorney to rise, when a colonoscopy is involved, when you’re in a room with Prince, etc.) and in those times it’s more than appropriate to add a little rigidity to your language. Most of the time, however, we’re all just going about the everyday tasks of trying to find roast beef sandwiches and attempting to peacefully coexist. No reason to gussy up our speak for that. You’re not going to impress anyone when the words “Cynthia, with whom should we go to Forever 21 this evening?” leave your mouth.

If you simply can’t stand to strand those prepositions, that’s okay. Some people are always striving for what they see as “perfection” in their speech and writing—the members of the “I’m doing well” crowd. If that’s you, fantastic. Live your life, kid. But please stop telling the “I’m doing good”-ers they’re wrong to let their prepositions caboose it up. The world will be better because of your tolerance.

No matter what, various dilettantes throughout the English-speaking world will clench at the sight of prepositions at the ends of sentences until the zombies bring an end to all non-grunted languages. But in the interim, those fops will probably be happier if they can learn to un-pucker.

p.s. Next week’s diatribe should probably be a self-directed lesson on restraint in the use of italics.