Lies your English teacher told you: You can’t end a sentence with a preposition
Hello and welcome to the third episode in our ongoing series on stuff about the English language people in positions of authority misled you into thinking was true! Last time, Lisa showed us why it is perfectly fine (and in some cases, even preferable!) to split an infinitive.
Today, I will tackle a “rule” that’s every bit as well-known as it is routinely disregarded: “you can’t end a sentence with a preposition”.
This rule is interesting, as far as prescriptive rules go, in that its is hardly ever observed in practice. We all end sentences with prepositions, and it’s no use denying it. But don’t worry: the grammar police will not come busting down your door just yet. The reason we do it is because it’s perfectly natural in English, and in many cases even unavoidable!
The process of ending sentences with prepositions is technically known as preposition stranding, or P-stranding, and it is fairly common amongst Germanic languages.
This phenomenon is due to something we in the biz call wh- movement. Let me explain quickly what it is.
When you turn a statement into a question, you unconsciously perform a series of operations that transform that statement. In the case of wh- questions (what?, who?, when? etc.), the steps you follow are these:
- Take the statement.
The boy ate the apple.
- Turn the part you want to question into a wh- word.
The boy ate what?
- Move the wh- word to the beginning of the sentence.
What the boy ate?
- For a series of hellishly complicated reasons I won’t go into here, transform the verb into it’s do-supported form (i.e. with “do”).
What the boy did eat?
- Invert the subject and the verb.
What did the boy eat?
And Bob’s your uncle! Pretty insane that you do this all the time and don’t even realise it, huh?
The process is basically the same for relative clauses (i.e. “The apple (which) the boy ate”), except without steps 4 and 5 (because it’s not a question), and with an extra step where you copy the “questioned” part to the start of the sentence before turning it into the wh- word. So:
- The boy ate the apple.
- The apple the boy ate the apple.
- The apple the boy ate which.
- The apple which the boy ate.
What interests us is what happens when this process takes place in a sentence where the moved object (or constituent, to use the proper lingo) is preceded by a preposition.
- The boy went to the cinema with the girl.
- The girl the boy went to the cinema with the girl.
- The girl the boy went to the cinema with who(m).
And here we hit the point of contention. What should be done on step 4? Until the 18th century, the answer was easy: the most natural option was to move the wh- word and leave the preposition where it is. Stranded, if you like.
- The girl who(m) the boy went to the cinema with.
The same applied to questions (“Who(m) did the boy go to the cinema with?”). However, there was a second option, in which the wh- word dragged the preposition along with itself to the start of the sentence or clause, so that step 4 would look like
- The girl with who(m) the boy went to the cinema.
This particular construction is technically known as pied-piping, from the German fairy tale “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, where a magic piper freed the city of troublesome mice by playing his flute and mesmerising them into following him out. He applied the same procedure later to kidnap all the city’s children to punish the inhabitants for their ingratitude. Talk about overreacting.
This option, while always possible, was seen as rather cumbersome, and therefore dispreferred. Until the 18th century, when a sustained campaign by a number of intellectuals flipped the status of the two constructions in the public consciousness. What happened?
Well, as you might remember from many of our posts about the history of prescriptivism, people in the 18th and 19th century displayed an unhealty obsession over Latin. Since Latin was The Perfect Language™, each and every aspect of the English language that didn’t look like Latin was, of course, wrong and barbaric, and had to be eliminated. I’ll give you one guess as to what Latin didn’t do with its prepositions during wh- movement.
If you guessed “stranding them”, then congratulations! You guessed right.
In Latin (and all the languages which descend from it), only pied-piping is acceptable when applying wh- movement to a sentence with a preposition. Our example sentence in Latin would go like this (cum = with, quā = who(m)):
- Puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
- Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
- Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum quā īvit.
- Puella cum quā puer ad cinematographeum īvit.
Needless to say, the prescriptivist scholars twisted themselves into logic pretzels to justify why this should be true of English as well. Some just openly admitted that it was because English should be similar to Latin, others tried to be clever and argued that a “preposition” is called that because it goes before a word (pre- = before + position), and must have thought themselves exceedingly smart, notwithstanding the fact that the word “preposition” comes from Latin, where P-stranding is impossible, so of course they would call it that.
Some got caught in their own circular reasoning and inevitably found sentences in which preposition stranding is obligatory, giving rise to comically frustrated rants like the following, courtesy of one Philip Withers, from 1789:
“It may be said, it is absolutely unavoidable on particular occasions. v.g. The Stock was disposed OF BY private contract. But an elegant writer would rather vary the phrase, or exchange the verb than admit so awkward a concurrence of prepositions.”
A little tip, kids: if someone tells you he would rather avoid or ignore pieces of data that they dislike, or actively tells you to do so, they’re not a scientist. In the case of linguistics, you’ve spotted a prescriptivist! Mark it on your prescriptivist-spotting book and move on.
What of the writers that came before them and regularly stranded prepositions? Robert Lowth (a name you’ll become wearily familiar with by the end of this series) commented that they too were somehow universally speaking bad English, and a guy named John Dryden even went so far as to rewrite some of Shakespeare’s plays to remove some of the unsightly and atrocious “errors” he found in them, preposition stranding included.
Such are the lengths fanatism goes to.
Stay tuned for next time, when Rebekah will explain to you why a negative plus a negative doesn’t necessarily imply a positive.