Grammar Grab Bag: Up with Which I Will Not Put

GrammarGrabBag_2016

We’ve all seen it. Some of us have even done it –a bit of linguistic gymnastics to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Doing so was a crime against the English language, for which our middle school English teachers assured we would be punished, often enforced by the use of red circles, sometimes with an X through them or accompanied by an arrow showing where the preposition should have gone.

I’m here to tell you that you can completely ignore this rule and can skip the linguistic gymnastics. The whole thing was made up by a jealous poet in the mid-1600s.

What’s a Preposition?

Let’s start with what a preposition actually is. These are words that explain the relationship between other words, usually by defining the relationship in terms of space or time. For example, the candy was in the drawer. The article went live after the press release. You get the idea.

Who is John Dryden?

John Dryden was named the first Poet Laureate of England in 1668. He was a well-known literary figure in his day, to the point that the period of Restoration England is sometimes referred to as “the Age of Dryden.” He wrote a lot of poems, plays and other works and is coincidentally, the second cousin once removed of Johnathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, among other works you may not have read in school.

So what does Dryden have to do with prepositions?

If you want the full account, complete with commentary on Dryden’s jealousy issues, I suggest Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast take on it, here. The short version is that  Dryden objected to the previous generation of playwright’s use of language, perhaps out of jealousy, and specifically a phrase from Ben Johnson (a contemporary of Shakespeare) in his play Catiline, “The waves, and dens of beasts could not receive/ The bodies that those souls were frighted from.” Dryden noted that “The preposition in the end of the sentence, a common fault with him.” This is widely considered the beginning of English teachers forbidding the ending of a sentence with a preposition.

So What’s the Big Deal?

Dryden never did explain his issue with ending a sentence with a preposition. In Latin, grammatical structure of sentences is a bit loose in its rules, but one hard and fast rule is that you absolutely cannot end a sentence with a preposition. And so it is assumed that Dryden was exporting the rule from Latin into English, despite the fact that everyone had been ending English sentences with prepositions for a very long time.

Regardless of the fact that this rule was an entirely made up personal preference of Dryden’s, his influence was such that it stuck in people’s minds.

Should I Listen to Dryden?

Most grammarians agree that the rule is silly, does not improve readability or clarify meaning, which is generally the goal of most grammar rules. In some cases, the linguistic gymnastics required to avoid it can actually hinder both readability and meaning comprehension. Consider, for example, the quote about prepositions widely attributed to Winston Churchill, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” Hard to read and understand isn’t it?

At the end of the day, most of the arguments against this made up rule boil down to “normal people don’t talk that way.” And they don’t. So feel free to stop the linguistic gymnastics and end your sentences however you want – even with a preposition!