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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Grammarians Beware: Dangling Prepositions

I hate stupid rules.

I'm a writer, a linguist, and a teacher of English as a Second Language.  In descriptive linguistics and in teaching ESL, we talk about English as it's spoken, not as it's "supposed" to be spoken, according to grammar textbooks from the 50s.  I'm a stickler for the important rules, but it really bugs me when people get on their high horse about things like how you should never end a sentence with a preposition.    

Sometimes, I agree it's more elegant.  "I want to go" is cleaner than "I want to go with."  This, however, is simply a case of an extra word.  When you have to start doing linguistic gymnastics just to avoid a preposition at the end, that's where I draw the line.  "Where are you from?" is quite preferable to "from where do you come?" 

I think one of the reasons people think it's improper is that in Latin and other Romance languages, it's either impossible or incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition.  We—and especially our 18th and 19th century grammarian predecessors—seem to have this strange idea that Latin is the most wonderful language ever.  But guess what?  English is NOT a Romance language.  It's Germanic.  And Germans dangle their prepositions all over the place.

Another thing about Germanic languages is the prevalence of phrasal verbs, something native speakers rarely hear about because we all instinctively know how to use them and what they mean.  However, they give learners of English nightmares.  Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and one or more prepositions, like break up with, hang out, and get over.  They often have meanings unrelated, or only loosely linked, with their base verbs.  Hanging out with your friends doesn't generally involve any actual hanging.  When a building blows up, it doesn't lift its mouth to the sky and exhale. 

When an intransitive phrasal verb comes at the end of a sentence, there's rarely a good way to avoid that final preposition, and there's absolutely no reason to try.  "The White House blew up!" or "Up blew the White House!"  You tell me which is better.  How about this:  "Let's get this over with."  If there's a way to naturally rephrase that, I can't figure it OUT.

So, if you insist on never dangling your prepositions, start speaking Latin or Spanish, because terminal prepositions in English are something grammarians are just going to have to deal WITH.  Here's a link to a great video on the topic from Merriam-Webster.  Check it OUT.   

2 comments:

  1. Yay for Germanic languages with dangling prepositions!

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  2. Like I tell my GED students, good writing is about communicating thoughts. In my opinion, a dangled preposition doesn't impede communication, so it's nothing to lose sleep over. Still, I love the debate.

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