Who told the first lie?

Hello there, faithful followers!

As you may have noticed, we have recently been running a bit of a series, called ‘Lies your English teacher told you’. Our ‘lies’ have included the prescriptive ideas such as (1) you should never split an infinitive; (2) you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition; and (3) two double negatives becomes a positive (in English). We’ve also taken a look at the ‘lies’ told to those taught English as a second, or foreign, language.

Now, dear friends, we have reached the conclusion of this little series and we will end it with a bang! It’s time, or rather overdue, that the truth behind these little stories be unveiled… Today, we will therefore unveil the original ‘villain’, if you will (though, of course, none of them were really villainous, just very determined) and tell you the truth of who told the very first lie.

Starting off, let’s say a few words about a man that might often be recognized as the first source of (most) of the grammar-lies told by your English teachers: Robert Lowth, a bishop of the Church of England and an Oxford professor of Poetry.

Robert Lowth, after RE Pine.jpg

Bishop Robert Lowth

Lowth is more commonly known as the illustrious author of the extremely influential A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762. The traditional story goes that Lowth, prompted by the absence of a simple grammar textbook to the English language, set out to remedy the situation by creating a grammar handbook which “established him as the first of a long line of usage commentators who judge the English language in addition to describing it”, according to Wikipedia. As a result, Lowth became the virtual poster-boy (poster-man?) for the rise of prescriptivism and a fascinating amount of prescriptivist ‘rules’ are attributed to Lowth’s writ – including the ‘lies’ mentioned in today’s post. The image of Lowth as a stern bishop with strict ideas about the use of the English language and its grammar may, however, not be well-deserved. So let’s take a look at three ‘rules’ and see who told the first lie.

Let’s start with: you should never split an infinitive. While often attributed to Lowth, this particular ‘rule’ doesn’t gain prominence until nearly 41 years later, in 1803 when John Comly, in his English Grammar Made Easy to the Teacher and Pupil, notes:

“An adverb should not be placed between a verb of the infinitive mood and the preposition to which governs it; as Patiently to wait — not To patiently wait.1

A large number of authorities agreed with Comly and, in 1864, Henry Alford popularized the ‘rule’ (although Alford never stated it as such). Though a good number of other authorities, among them Goold Brown, Otto Jespersen, and H.W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, disagreed with the rule, it was common-place by 1907 when the Fowler brothers note:  

“The ‘split’ infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer.” 2

Of course, to split an infinitive is quite common in English today; most famously in Star Trek, of course, and we doubt that most English-speakers would hesitate to boldly go against this 19th century prescriptivist rule.

Now, let’s deal with out second ‘rule’: don’t end a sentence with a preposition. This neat little idea comes from a rather fanatic conviction that English syntax (sentence structure) should conform to that of Latin syntax, where the ‘problem’ of ending a sentence with a preposition is a lot less likely to arise due to the morphological complexity of the Latin language. But, of course, English is not Latin.

Still, in 1672, dramatist John Dryden decided to criticize Ben Jonson for placing a preposition at the end of a sentence rather than before the noun/pronoun to which it belonged (see what we did there? We could have said: … the noun/pronoun which it belonged to, but  the rule is way too ingrained and we automatically changed it to a style that cannot be deemed anything but overly formal for a blog). Anyway.

The idea stuck and Lowth’s grammar enforced it. Despite his added note that the fanaticism about Latin was an issue in English, the rule hung around and the ‘lie’, while certainly not as strictly enforced as it used to be, is still alive and well (but not(!) possible to attribute to Lowth).

Last: two double negatives becomes a positive (in English). First: no, they don’t. Or at least not necessarily. In the history of English, multiple negators in one sentence or clause were common and, no, they do not indicate a positive. Instead, they often emphasize the negative factor, an effect commonly called emphatic negation or negative concord, and the idea that multiple negators did anything but form emphatic negation didn’t show up until 1762. Recognise the year? Yes, indeed, this particular rule was first observed by Robert Lowth in his grammar book, in which it is stated (as noted in the Oxford Dictionaries Blog):

“Two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative.”

So, indeed, this one rule out of three could be attributed to Lowth. However, it is worth noting that Lowth’s original intention with his handbook was not to prescribe rules to the English language: it was to provide his son, who was about to start school, with an easy, accessible aid to his study.

So, why have we been going on and on about Lowth in this post? Well, first, because we feel it is rather unfair to judge Lowth as the poster-boy for prescriptivism when his intentions were nowhere close to regulating the English language, but, more importantly, to tell you, our faithful readers, that history has a tendency to change during the course of time. Someone whose intentions were something completely different can, 250 years later, become a ‘villain’; a ‘rule’ that is firmly in place today may not have been there 50 years ago (and yes, indeed, sometimes language does change that fast); and last, any study of historical matter, be it within history; archeology; anthropology or historical linguistics, must take this into account. We must be aware, and practice that awareness, onto all our studies, readings and conclusions, because a lie told by those who we reckon should know the truth might be well-meaning but, in the end, it is still a lie.


Sources and references

Credits to Wikipedia for the picture of Lowth; find it right here

1 This quote is actually taken from Comly’s 1811 book A New Spelling Book, page 192, which you can find here. When it comes to the 1803 edition, we have trusted Merriam-Websters usage notes, which you can find here.

2 We’ve used The King’s English, second edition, to confirm this quote, which occurs also on Wikipedia. The book is published in 1908 and this particular quote is found on page 319, or, right here.

In regards to ending a sentence with a preposition, our source is the Oxford Dictionaries Blog on the topic, found here.

Regarding the double negative becoming positive, our source remains the Oxford Dictionaries Blog on that particular topic, found here.

A preposition is not a good word to end a sentence with

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:

  1. Take the statement.
    The boy ate the apple.
  2. Turn the part you want to question into a wh- word.
    The boy ate what?
  3. Move the wh- word to the beginning of the sentence.
    What the boy ate?
  4. 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?
  5. 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:

  1. The boy ate the apple.
  2. The apple the boy ate the apple.
  3. The apple the boy ate which.
  4. 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.

  1. The boy went to the cinema with the girl.
  2. The girl the boy went to the cinema with the girl.
  3. 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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)):

  1. Puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
  2. Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
  3. Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum quā īvit.
  4. 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.