While reading “The Grammar Guru” (July/August 2013), I recalled Winston Churchill’s response to a punctilious editor who had chided him for ending a sentence with a preposition. Churchill’s memorable and oft quoted retort was “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
Mel B. Yoken, Ph.D.
Chancellor Professor Emeritus of French Language and Literature
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Dear Professor Yoken,
In colleges and universities, students from time to time lead a cow upstairs and into an administrator’s office. The prank is popular because while you can lead a cow upstairs, you can’t lead it downstairs. I know a number of cows like this. They’re the bogus usage rules that self-appointed grammarians herd into our national consciousness. It isn’t long before we can’t get them—the pundits and their rules—out.
One of the most hefty and intractable bovines is that of using of a preposition to end a sentence. The rule banishing terminal prepositions from educated discourse was invented by the late-17th-century British critic and poet John Dryden, who reasoned that preposito in Latin means something that “comes before” and that prepositions in Latin never appear at the end of a sentence. Dryden even went so far as to re-edit his own works in order to remove the offending construction. A bevy of prescriptive grammarians have been preaching the dogma ever since.
Unfortunately, Dryden neglected to consider two crucial points: First, the rules of Latin don’t always apply to English. There exist vast differences between the two languages in their manner of connecting verbs and prepositions. Latin is a language of cases, English a language of word order. In Latin, it is physically impossible for a preposition to appear at the end of a sentence. Second, the greatest writers in English, before and after the time of Dryden, have freely ended sentences with prepositions. Why? Because the construction is a natural and graceful part of our English idiom.
Here are a few examples from the masters:
- Fly to others that we know not of — William Shakespeare
- We are such stuff / As dreams are made on. — William Shakespeare
- Houses are built to live in, not to look on. — Francis Bacon
- What a fine conformity would it starch us all into.— John Milton
- … soil good to be born on, good to live on, good to die for and to be buried in. — James Russell Lowell
- All words are pegs to hang ideas on. — Henry Ward Beecher
The final preposition is one of the glories of the English language. If we shackle its idioms and muffle its music with false rules, we diminish the power of our language. If we rewrite the quotations above to conform to Dryden’s edict, the natural beauty of our prose and verse is forced to bow before a stiff mandarin code of structure. “Fly to others of whom we know not”; “All words are pegs upon which to hang ideas”—now the statements are artificial—people simply don’t talk like that—and, in most cases, wordier.
The most widely circulated joke about the terminal preposition is the one you talk about (or should that be “about which you talk”?).
A variation on this story concerns a newspaper columnist who responded snappily to the accusation that he was uncouthly violating the terminal preposition “rule”: “What do you take me for? A chap who doesn’t know how to make full use of all the easy variety the English language is capable of? Don’t you know that ending a sentence with a preposition is an idiom many famous writers are very fond of? They realize it’s a colloquialism a skillful writer can do a great deal with. Certainly it’s a linguistic device you ought to read about.”
For the punster there’s the setup joke about the prisoner who asks a female guard to marry him on the condition that she help him escape. This is a man attempting to use a proposition to end a sentence with.
Then there’s the one about the little boy who has just gone to bed when his father comes into the room carrying a book about Australia. Surprised, the boy asks: “What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of from about Down Under up for?”
Now that’s a sentence out of which you can get a lot.
My favorite of all terminal preposition stories involves a boy attending public school and one attending private school who end up sitting next to each other in an airplane. To be friendly, the public schooler turns to the preppie and asks, “What school are you at?”
The private schooler looks down his aquiline nose at the public school student and comments, “I happen to attend an institution at which we are taught to know better than to conclude sentences with prepositions.”
The boy at public school pauses for a moment and then says: “All right, then. What school are you at, dingbat!”