Friday, 28 May 2010

Prepositions The End Of Sentences At

There is an old, old joke about a chap who asks a librarian what section a particular book is in. 'I'm afraid', says the librarian, 'that I can't answer questions that end with a preposition.' 'All right,' says the chap. 'What section's the book in, you twat.'

This joke is terribly unfair on librarians, because any literate person knows that there is no rule saying that you can't end a sentence with a preposition. It is, as Shakespeare put it, such stuff as dreams are made on. Yet it remains one of those errors that flesh is heir to.

That there is no such rule should be obvious to any English speaker. How would you go about using a phrasal verb in the imperative? 'Out look!' you would scream. 'Down get! On we're being fired!'

Referees would say 'On play.' Off would take planes. And nobody would be allowed to sleep in.

No grammarian supports this wild rule. Fowler calls it a "superstition". Bernstein said that anyone who propounded it didn't have a leg on which to stand. Winston Churchill, who knew his way around a sentence, said it was the kind of nonsense up with which he would not put.

So why, you may ask, is it such a common misconception? Why do so many fools, however inconsistently, assert that there is such a rule? Did they just make up it?

Not exactly.

The rule is utterly unfairly blamed on a chap called Robert Lowth. Lowth was an eighteenth century scholar of ancient languages who believed that it was rather silly that schoolboys learnt their grammar from Latin and that it would be easier for everybody if they learnt English grammar first. So he wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar. This book is much and misleadingly cited. But for you, dear reader, for you I sat down yesterday and read it cover to cover*.

Here is the actual section on prepositions, and it's well worth reading the whole thing.

PREPOSITIONS have Government of Cases; and in English they always require the Objective Case after them: as, "with him; from her, to me."

The Preposition is often separated from the Relative which it governs and joined to the Verb at the end of the Sentence, or of some member of it: as, "Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with." "The world is too well bred to shock authors with a truth, which generally their booksellers are the first that inform them of." This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing;

[Any objections so far, dear reader? Notice the "strongly inclined to"?]

but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.

[That's it. Doesn't sound like a rule to me. It's a little stylistic tip for a particular kind of writing. And just to show that he understood, I shall quote further.]

...But in English the Preposition is more frequently placed after the Verb, and separate from it like an Adverb; in which Situation it is no less apt to affect the Sense of it, and to give it a new Meaning; and may still be considered as belonging to the Verb, and a part of it. As to cast is to throw;  but to cast up, or to compute, an account, is quite a different thing: thus to fall on, to bear out, to give over &c. So that the Meaning of the Verb, and the Propriety of the Phrase, depend upon the Preposition subjoined.

I can't tell whether it is more foolish that that little half-sentence has been taken up by generations of fatuous pedants as an iron law of English, or that for a stylistic suggestion poor Lowth has become the object of so many grammarians' scorn.

Lowth's book has also been blamed for the (utterly fatuous) idea that you can't split an infinitive, which he doesn't mention once. In fact, he toddles along merrily beginning sentences with Ands and Buts and being a good clear writer of English.

So Lowth is less read than condemned. And next time anybody tells you that you can't end a sentence with a preposition, tell them to off piss.

Not Guilty

*The title doesn't lie. It's very, very short.


  1. Enjoyed your post. Your mind works in weird & wonderous ways. What a gift you have. On right, write.

  2. Funny, funny post. Loved the joke, however old.

  3. Nothing to do with this post but if you want confirmation that were are in the end times, shortly to face cataclysm, I recommend that you listen to 'Hello Goodbye', covered by the Glee cast. It is miraculously bad. An offence to the ear so vile you will burst your own drums, pluck out your eyes and chew on your tongue.

  4. Jesus Christ, you're right! I'm now crouched in the Inky Fool bunker with a copy of the Bible and an RPG. But, to be honest, that's how I spend most of my evenings.

  5. Soon I'll have to start recycling my older comments , but I don't think I've yet told you that I am infatuated. With this post in particular, although it's awfully hard to choose a favourite. Do you ever give live performances in exchange for a tuition fee?

  6. The Antipodean29 May 2010 16:11

    Ooh, you have D&D in your bunker? Though it could be a little tricky to play if your reactions were similar to Anon's.

    I am apparently lacking in perspicacity, since not only did I survive said offence to the ear with my senses intact, but I am unable to figure out the connection between this post and the Trusty Servant. Or is our friendly hircocervus a default image of some description?

    Yes, in the process of trying to decipher it, I have just learnt the word hircocervus. I am quite fond of it already, and a little despairing at how little opportunity I will have to use it in casual conversation.

  7. Your posts thrill me...why is it that these complexities of grammar excite me so?

    I'm quite inclined to start my sentences with "And" and "But".

    And, I'm thankful that you have highlighted that this is ok.

    (Now I don't have to confess my sins at the foot of my old school English teacher, who was emphatic about not splitting infinitives either!)

  8. Wikipedia notwithstanding (lovely word), the Trusty Servant is an image of the ideal Wykehamist. Lowth, like Thomas Browne, Lord Alfred Douglas etc. was an alumnus of Winchester College (founded by William of Wykeham, hence Wykehamist). I did an image search for prepositions, but it was much less intriguing.

  9. This is all such a relief. Thank you.

    Having worked in a library for...ooh... about three weeks now it sounds to me like 'The librarian done it' although where I come from no-one asks 'Which section are your grammar books in?' They are far more likely to say: 'Where are the serial killer books, luv?'

  10. The Antipodean30 May 2010 12:08

    Many thanks, not least for the link which (eventually) provided me with a semi-rational excuse for a long-held irrational dislike of men wearing white shoes. With Dr S, my need for confession is reduced.

  11. "How would you go about using a phrasal verb in the imperative? 'Out look!' you would scream. 'Down get! On we're being fired!'"

    In the first of those two, the particle is an adverb, not a preposition. But that's just pedantry.

    A different joke about prepositions/adverbs: a young child was upstairs in bed waiting for the bedtime story. He'd vetoed a particular antipodean tale, but his parent brought it up nonetheless. Unaware of any stylistic recommendations on the placement of prepositions, the child said petulantly:

    "What did you bring that book I didn't want to be read to out of about down under up for?"

  12. Okay, I've been thinking for ages and I can't beat that.

  13. Hi Ranjani- This is very good. I think I read Churchill's quote: "Bad English is something I will not up with put!" -DD