Prepositions: the last word

Something to not put up with?

The purpose of last week’s posting was to warn against accepting supposedly famous quotations just because they’re repeated frequently. But the biggest reaction came over the supposed quotation from Winston Churchill, all versions of which end with “up with which I will not put.” A link to Ben Zimmer’s research made it clear that there is no definitive proof when Churchill ever said or wrote it, or if he had. Even if there were proof, as Zimmer notes in an email, Churchill would have been ridiculing someone’s “arrant” nonsense or pedantry in editing a sentence that ended with a preposition, not expressing his objection to the practice itself.

So is it wrong to end a sentence with a preposition? Who says it is? If it’s not wrong, why do so many people have to say it’s not wrong?

To answer that, let’s look at what a preposition is and what it does. To do so, do not look at Wikipedia, whose definition begins “Prepositions (or more generally, adpositions, see below) are a grammatically distinct class of words whose most central members characteristically express spatial relations …” That way lies madness. But if you pronounce the word as PREE-position, instead of PREP-osition, you can see why the end of a sentence was not considered proper placement.

A preposition attaches to a noun or pronoun to indicate its relationship with another part of a sentence. A preposition can indicate ownership (the house “of” cards), source (water “from” a spring), time (the prayer “before” bedtime”), or place (the house “on” the corner”), among other things.

While the preposition usually comes before its companion—“pre-positioned”—occasionally it can come after the noun or pronoun it’s attached to: “What was that about?” That placement is often unavoidable.

But in centuries past, scholars decided that no proper preposition ever ended a sentence. John Dryden famously excised them from his work in the mid-seventeenth century, based apparently on his devotion to Latin. A grammar book written in the eighteenth century by another Latin scholar, Robert Lowth, further codified it, even though Lowth acknowledged that ending a sentence with a preposition suited English idiom quite well.

But, as is the case with split infinitives—which are impossible in Latin and thus banned in English—what’s possible in English eventually overrode the idea that Latin should govern English usage.

In the 1925 edition of A Dictionary of Modern English, H.W. Fowler acknowledged the “cherished superstition” that prepositions must go “before the word they govern.” Those advancing that superstition “are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource.” Yet many twentieth-century grammar books and teachers stoutly defended the “rule,” common practice notwithstanding.

But that Churchillian phrase had legs. By the 1965 second edition of A Dictionary of Modern English, the entry on “preposition at end” was revised to include the possibility that a “preposition” was actually part of a phrasal verb, effectively an idiomatic expression. The entry now ends with: “Not even Dryden could have altered which I will not put up with to up with which I will not put.”

Bottom line? End a sentence with a preposition if it sounds OK to you. If someone objects, ask where that person studied Latin at.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,