Never-Ending Prepositions

Winston Churchill, famous for his dogged resolve as Prime Minister of Britain during World War II, was once scolded by his secretary (or so the story goes) for ending a sentence with a preposition. His commanding reply was, That is something up with which I shall not put. The tale, tall or not, illustrates an entrenched belief in what the scholars say is really a popular superstition—and the Prime Minister apparently knew it.

Humor and analysis seem at odds most of the time. To explain a quip is to miss the point, but there is something to learn here if we look into just what point Churchill was trying to make with his retort. We might have expected him to reply, That is something I shall not put up with, and except for the use of shall instead of will (a further topic only the innocent would tread lightly into), that response would have sounded more natural to our ears. Therein, of course, lies the joke: the formality of the reply belies the formal authority of the grammatical rule, which presumes to so stand on correctness that it overreaches and tumbles down.

Prepositions, we know, are one of the eight parts of speech, that interpretive scheme that boxes every word of a language according to its grammatical function in a sentence. Prepositions are pre-positioned, that is, they are placed, or positioned, before their object, the noun or pronoun they work with. Their role is to put their object into some logical relation to a noun previously occurring in the sentence. If I say, for example, that houses with black roofs are hotter in summer, the preposition with is meant to connect its object black roofs with the noun houses through the logical idea of accompaniment (the two things are found together), which is what the preposition with means here. This is the way prepositions usually work in English, and it’s a construction, and terminology, the language inherited from Latin.

But English is not Latin, no matter how strongly that classical language has influenced its construction. Scholars will speak of the instinct a language has for expressing its perceptions, and against holding too strictly to the rule that an object should follow its preposition, they will point to the importance of recognizing that “those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are ‘inelegant’ are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards” (Margaret Nicholson, A Dictionary of American-English Usage, Oxford, 1957, p. 445).

The point, certainly, is not simply to abandon the established and regular construction, but to recognize that English allows for varying diction, that we may fashion the language in ways appropriate to the circumstances for which we are writing or in which we are speaking. On the line between casual at one extreme and formal at the other, the rule that one should never end a sentence with a preposition stands on the formal or proper side, as Churchill’s riposte illustrates. And sometimes we do indeed want to be formal, as the occasion requires. But sometimes, too, it’s a bit odd to dress formally for a cup of coffee with a friend, and so English has other linguistic resources to help us convey the shades of meaning we have in mind.

It’s all an interesting question, really, because it forces us to think about just what we mean by a rule, whether a rule, or law, of grammar or physics or design. A rule is a measure, but a measure of what?


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