Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Skillful Quill: Prepositions—Dangling On the Precipice of Error

Good Afternoon, Beardies!

In case you missed Mary's post on August 22nd, she wrote a compelling argument as to why prepositions at the end of sentences—though incorrect in Latin—are never technically incorrect in English, a language deriving from German. Though I respect her standpoint on the subject and understand the point she was trying to make, I whole-heartedly disagree. Amicably, of course. In this post, I will offer another view and counter some of the points presented in hers.

First, as Mary stated, the word preposition derives from Latin, meaning “to place before” (as in its related object), and one should not apply Latin grammar rules to English because its root language is German. Fair enough. But the word for preposition in German is Präposition, which can also be translated as, “to place before (an object).” Should it not also follow the same rules?

While the roots of English derive from German, much of English is also borrowed from other sources—such as Latin—words such as agenda, apex, calendar, circumference, circus, data, equinox, focus, genius, index, inertia, maximum, media, medium, occult, quadrant, radius, and even the word Germany! In total—if you only count the Latin Branch of the Indo-European language family—there are almost 650 loanwords from about 13 Romance languages from around the world. And if you look at the Germanic Branch of the Indo-European language family, there are only 345 loanwords from 16 Germanic languages—nearly half! On another note, most of our grammatical terminology, in fact, derives from Latin. Words like noun, verb, predicate, adjective, adverb, pronoun, object, superlative, subordinate, clause, conjunction—even grammar, syntax, and sentence—all derive from Latin. Latin is also the language of knowledge, education, science, and religion—why would we not use Latin grammar rules?

Hardly any grammar rule used in German is applied to English today—we don't capitalize all of our nouns, we do not have gender, there are FOUR cases in German, there is a separate plural form of each word (whereas in English we only have to add an “s” to most nouns), and many other rules that are not applicable to English grammar.

Also, the only case in which a preposition falls at the end of a sentence in German, at least to my knowledge, is when it is actually the prefix to a verb. For instance, the German verb “ankommen” (to arrive) is actually comprised of the prefix “an” (on) + “kommen” (come). When used in the sentence, “Er kommt am Flughafen an,” (meaning “He arrives at the airport”) it splits into “” But the preposition is actually “am” in this sentence, meaning “at” or “at the.” Because of its conjugation, “ankommen” is a phrasal verb. This is similar to phrasal verbs in English, such as “check out,” as in “investigate,” which properly conjugated is “Check it out.” This case, as in German, is one of the only exceptions where a preposition at the end of the sentence is admissible. However, being a little more descriptive with the latter sentence would solve the issue altogether: “Check out that painting.”

Dangling preposition solved. But I digress.

There are other phrasal verbs such as play on or put up or put away or put up with, which have more eloquent counterparts: play on becomes exploit; put up or put away, depending upon the object to which you are referring, becomes deposit or sheathe or shelve or stow; and put up with becomes tolerate or suffer or endure.

Let's take the Winston Churchill quote mentioned in Mary's post—the inspiration for her title:

When criticized for occasionally ending a sentence with a preposition (or so the story goes, as there's no physical proof for the source of said anecdote), Winston Churchill replied, "This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put." Churchill's reply satirizes the strict adherence to this rule.

But. There are several more eloquent ways to say the original—whether attributed to Churchill or otherwise—in the first place, ways that would have eliminated any preposition left dangling at the end of the sentence. Here are four, just for starters:
  1. “I will not put up with this type of arrant pedantry.”
  2. “This is the type of arrant pedantry that I will not tolerate.” 
  3. “I will not tolerate this type of arrant pedantry.” 
  4. “I will not suffer this type of nonsense.”
No satire required. You're left with concise language that conveys the message with much more clarity and brevity; ending sentences with prepositions might not be technically incorrect, but in my opinion, it is a lazy. Its incorrectness lies in its inert use of language; there is a plethora of words much more suited to the task of conveying a more accurate and precise message—why limit yourself?

Let me show you an example of a sentence that is not only informal because of the dangling preposition, but also because the preposition refers to an object missing from the sentence:
  • "What are you doing that for?"

Whereas one could transform the sentence to “For what are you doing that?” to get rid of the preposition at the end, the sentence is still devoid of an object. If we add in the object “reason,” the sentence becomes grammatically complete.

Instead, however, let's take the phrase “For what” and look at it more carefully. In French, it is translated as “pour quoi” and in Spanish it is translated as “por qué;” these words combined also create the word for “why” in each language, respectively.

So, sure, you could say, “For what reason are you doing that?” But wouldn't it make more sense to say, “Why are you doing that?”

Let's discuss the other examples of sentences which end with prepositions:
  • "Who are you going with?"
  • "Which box did you put it in?"
  • "Who's the letter addressed to?"

Do the above examples sound perfectly correct to you? Well, they're not—at least not perfectly. They're certainly accepted in everyday speech, and it's fine if your characters talk that way. But each of the above is technically incorrect; each one ends with a preposition devoid of its object. In other words, it "dangles."

When using prepositions, they must always—ALWAYS—be followed by their objects. They may not stand alone. (Remember, too, that certain prepositions can be used as other parts of speech, so it's important to understand HOW they're being used before assuming they're prepositions.)

Here are the MORE FORMAL ways to write the three examples above:
  • "With whom are you going?" (Preposition WITH followed by its object WHOM)
  • "In which box did you put it?" (Preposition IN followed by its object BOX [which = modifier])
  • "To whom is the letter addressed?" (Preposition TO followed by its object WHOM)

The above examples are all interrogative (questions), which doesn't need to be the case for this rule to apply:
  • “I'll let you know who to ask for at the front door.”

Sound right? Well, it is technically incorrect because of the 'object rule,' too!
  • "I'll let you know for whom to ask at the front door." (Preposition FOR followed by its object WHOM)

In Mary's example about Everybody Loves Raymond, where Raymond fumbles on his words and is mocked by the board members, it was stated that Raymond wasn't wrong—but had he been writing it, he most certainly was, technically. Raymond could have avoided his prepositional faux pas entirely by using a better verb—as is most cases with phrasal verbs.

Instead of saying, “Isn't that the kind of school we want our children to be at?”
He could have said, “Isn't that the kind of school we want our children attending?”

ON THE OTHER HAND... There are circumstances, however, where leaving a preposition at the end of a sentence (in writing) is acceptable:

Dialogue. They way we talk and the way we write have always varied. Prepositions at the ends of sentences are commonplace in everyday conversation, as they should be, because they provide for a fluidity of language without being boggled by rules.  No need to think about where that preposition is supposed to go, et cetera. But if you are a writer, more often than not, you also speak the way you write. But I digress. Again.

Colloquialisms often depict upbringing, education, geographical origin, class, race, or other variances that are important to depict upon the page in order to shed light—or shadow—on the cast of characters in your stories. Showing your character(s) through language is just as important as showing your character(s) through description or action. What a person says or how they say it speaks volumes about an individual's background, intentions, or mood, all of which are important factors in creating a richer atmosphere for your readers.

Narrative Style. This is tied into dialogue, in some respect, and is pretty much exclusive to First Person POV. While it's not dialogue, the way a character describes something or divulges information to your readers is important and shows deeper integrity of your story and stronger world building. It's often referred to as Narrative Dialect; too much of this, however, is irritating and causes your readers to stumble upon the prose, often having to re-read passages for meaning. Be warned and use it sparingly.

Phrasal Verbs. As I mentioned above, there are some prepositions that can be used as other parts of speech. There are many verbs in the English language (check out, go over, pay for, run into, run away, show up, et cetera) which are actually comprised of several words. When conjugated, these phrasal verbs leave messy end results, as shown in the previous examples. Sometimes, as Mary said, there is no way of getting around the inevitable...unless you, of course, take my advice and change your sentence to better convey your actual message. Verbs like the ones above can be changed to investigate, review, buy/fund/finance, collide/meet/encounter, flee, appear/come. But in the case where no substitutions are available, or where the substitution alters the tone of the scene, by all means, keep the preposition dangling.

Some grammarists will argue this until they are BLUE in the face, stating that the dangling preposition rule is a big grammar myth. It isn't. When writing—unless you're showing style or mood of the narrator or character in your story—prepositions, regardless of language, are supposed to precede its related object. This is true of clauses, too, and not just sentences. Prepositions should ALWAYS precede the object in any given clause.

Placing the preposition at the beginning of interrogative clauses will allow the listener/reader to realize what type of answer is expected. We hear the first word of the sentence and mentally fixate on that word. Saying "Where are you coming from?" can cause the reader/listener to fixate on the word "Where." The listener/reader starts pondering what the person is actually asking, which then counters the popular argument "language is about simply conveying thoughts and therefore should remain simple." Placing "from" first gives the reader specific and direct auditory/visual cues. Such phrasing is respectful to the listener/reader. If you plan to write (and not just academic papers), you must learn to write without leaving prepositions at the ends of sentences and phrases. The solutions often involve a higher level of vocabulary. As your writing begins to require more depth and complexity and you need more clarity, the placement of prepositions is crucial. Think of correct preposition placement as a word puzzle to solve (rather than as a tedious exercise). 

In conclusion, a lot of people will argue—like Churchill—that the adherence to these rules over which are often and commonly quibbled is snobbish and outdated; their arguments state that people no longer communicate so formally and that the rules are archaic. Well, they are right about the first part: people no longer communicate formally.

With each advancement of technological communication, formal communication suffers greatly. Most people no longer write letters to one another since the arrival of electronic mail; most people no longer read books due to the instant entertainment of movies and television; most people no longer read the newspaper for the source of their news—media networks like CNN and Fox now broadcast the breaking news (heavy topics such as Miley Cyrus' twerking and whether the Fall TV season will be less gay)...some people even get their news straight from Facebook (GASP!).

The English language has now been reduced to 3- and 4-letter acronyms such as LOL, SMH, OMG, and LMAO (even I'm guilty of the infraction, but you will only find them in casual correspondence); if we base the validity of our grammar rules on whether or not people currently use them today, we would all be talking like Kardashians and the English language would have no rules. Rules are there for guidance, just as laws are enforced to ensure civility. I'm not saying we should punish those who break grammar rules with hard time (then again...), but if we throw away the rules at the drop of a hat because they seem too arrogant or we are too lazy to follow them, don't we also throw away our own progress?

And that type of arrant indolence is something up with which I will not put,
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