Prepositions, Churchill, and You

“This is the sort of pedantic(bloody/tedious) nonsense up with which I will not put.” — Sir Winston Churchill (perhaps, perhaps not)

First, I shall provide a link so I don’t have to summarize here. I suspect many of you know where I’m headed with this already. Those who don’t, clickity the link, please. We’ll all wait.

::whistles and has a cup of tea::

Excellent. Now, to business.

It’s nonsense that you should avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, if that’s how it sounds best and makes sense. Blame the essayist John Dryden, since apparently he’s the one who started all of this back in 1672. (If you’ve read the article you know this already. If you haven’t read it, and think perhaps now you should, please do so. We’ll still be here when you come back.) Patricia O’Conner, in her wonderful handbook Woe Is I, puts the blame on Robert Lowth, a English clergyman and Latin scholar, and sets the date fuzzily at the eighteenth century. In any case, who done it doesn’t matter. It was done. (And yes, that’s passive construction. However, I can fairly safely say this was not done by zombies.) Anyway . . .

Many idioms employ prepositions, and altering the word order can create mayhem with your meaning. Turn up (as in “turn up the volume” or “something’s bound to turn up”), lean on (as in “put pressure on someone for answers”), space out (as in “sorry, I spaced out there for a minute”). You can think of more, I’m sure. Cambridge put out a whole dictionary full.

The point of all this is to assure you that there’s no need to twist your sentences into pretzels to avoid ending them with prepositions. There’s simply no reason to do so. If what you have to say sounds best and makes sense with a preposition at the end, run with it. As long as it’s not something that’s really incorrect, such as “Where are you at?” (the “at” is redundant; where already contains the sense of location or placement), no one has any reason to be concerned for your grammatical soul.

My normal caveats apply. If you’re writing dialogue, clearly you might well have a reason to have a character use nonstandard grammar. These hints are generally for more formalized writing, or for the narrative surrounding your dialogue. If you’re writing an academic paper, you will do well to avoid terminal prepositions (ones at the end of sentences) in favor of more standard, formal language. Even journalism (or what passes for it these days) should hew to a slightly more formal standard; avoid ending sentences with prepositions if you can, while maintaining clarity and sense.

Otherwise? No one should care what word your sentence ends with.

(Thanks to a G+ pal who asked me about this earlier today, thus sparking this post! You shall remain nameless. Fear not. I won’t turn you in. Heh.)

To boldly split infinitives any time we like!

How did I miss the grammatical connection to today’s anniversary of the premiere of “Star Trek” 47 years ago? HOW? ::strikes her best Kirk-esque dramatic pose::

So, all right. I’ve gotten that out of the way. Onward!

“To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Later it was updated, during ST:TNG (yes, I’m a fan; what tipped you off?): “To boldly go where no one has gone before” avoided the sexist language of the original. However, that split infinitive continued to be a thorn in the side of prescriptivists everywhere.

The thing is: It doesn’t matter.

That hoary warning about splitting infinitives so many of us heard throughout our elementary education (and perhaps even into our high-school and undergraduate years) is wrong. How did it come to be, then?

Latin.

In Latin, it’s impossible to split an infinitive. The grammar simply doesn’t allow for it. Can’t be done. Over time, English grammarians tried to force the Latin grammar rules onto English, and came up with “don’t ever split an infinitive.” (What the result would be was never explained to my satisfaction. It’s not nearly as dangerous as, let’s say, splitting an atom.) To be honest, folks — it doesn’t matter. You can split infinitives if you like. You can not split them if you prefer. You can do both, as the situation calls for.

Also, as Patricia O’Conner points out in Woe Is I, occasionally the meaning changes when you don’t split that infinitive. “The landlord decided to flatly forbid singing.” Move flatly and see what happens. Go ahead, I’ll wait . . . See? It’s silly. (Of course, maybe the landlord’s a music teacher or someone with perfect pitch for whom off-key sounds cause physical pain. I don’t know. Still, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the meaning intended is to flatly forbid singing.)

It’s okay.

Nothing will explode if you split an infinitive. Seriously. They’re not like atoms.

Who IS Chavez Cancer?

This time I have to thank Steve Miller for posting about this headline on his Facebook wall. Because of that, I wound up searching for the exact wording and discovered the precise location of the travesty of usage that is

Cancer personified.

I don’t know how long the link will remain active, so: CHAVEZ CANCER RETURNS, NAMES SUCCESSOR.

What, now? Who is Chavez Cancer? (Steve has some ideas about that, apparently.)

Honestly, even had it read “Chavez’s Cancer” the result wouldn’t be much better. The cancer is still naming a successor. At least the original version has some black(er) humor. It’s headlines like this that make my editor-senses twitch fitfully, my fingers curl into claws, and my eyes narrow. My gaze becomes fire. Smoky tendrils waft up from my ears. Is it really that difficult to write a headline that doesn’t scream “IDIOT!”? What’s wrong with “Cancer Returns, Chavez Names Successor”? It uses all the same words, and makes the point without causing editorial rage. I think it’s a plot by the website to lure me there.

The Hatter, the Hare, and the Dormouse had it right, you know.

Mad Hatter: You might as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same as “I eat what I see!”
March Hare: You might just as well say that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like!”
Dormouse: You might just as well say that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe!”

They’re not the same thing at all, really, even though poor Alice tried to say that “I mean what I say” is the same as “I say what I mean.”

How did I arrive at this literary source material? By way of a friend who shared this image with me, which I now share with all of you.

No word on whether AT&T responded to this with a corrected Tweet or not. I could hope, but I won’t.

I’m reminded of a handout I created during my tenure at TSR, Inc. about how word order changes meaning. The word “only” isn’t much of a word, really, having a mere four letters and two syllables–but watch how the sentence meaning changes with the position of this lowly modifier (it can be an adjective or an adverb or even a conjunction depending on placement).

Only the bear ate the hunter. (There were other animals, but the bear’s the only one that ate the hunter.)

The only bear ate the hunter. (No other bears were around, and the other animals are innocent.)

The bear only ate the hunter. (The bear didn’t kill the hunter, but he did eat him.)

The bear ate only the hunter. (The bear ignored the wife and kids, but ate the hunter.)

The bear ate the only hunter. (There weren’t any other hunters.)

Perhaps I should send this to AT&T’s social media peeps. Then again–naah. I need the blog fodder, y’know.