Grammar Gremlins: Positioning Prepositions

The Gremlins and I had no idea how many prepositions tie the English language together gremlin-2until I looked on line for a list. I was amazed. Wikipedia’s list includes 90 one-word prepositions, 40 consisting of two words, and another 37 listed as “archaic or dialectical.” Wow.

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Then I tried to find a definition of preposition. You know, like “nouns are the names of persons, places, or things,” or “verbs are words denoting actions.” None of my usual grammar references bothered with a definition for preposition, assuming, perhaps correctly, that we all know what one is. Or, according to Wikipedia, what 130 of them are.

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Wikipedia does provide a definition: prepositions are “a class of words used to express spatial or temporal relations (in, under, towards, before) or mark various semantic roles (or, for).” The derivation of the word preposition is “stand or place before.”

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The one rule most of us have heard regarding prepositions is the old-school directive that we should not end a sentence with one. Like the rule about not splitting infinitives, this seems to be related to attempts to make English work like Latin. Prepositions in Latin truly do “stand before” their objects. And like the rule about infinitives, this one seems to have outlived its usefulness.

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The abandonment of that particular rule has long been embodied by a famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill. When I attempted to ascertain the exact wording, I quickly found half a dozen different versions on line. Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University has collected at least thirteen variants, not just of the quote but also of the circumstances surrounding it, and has checked a dozen biographies of Churchill and found no evidence at all that he ever said, or wrote, anything about prepositions.

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Whether or not Churchill had any opinion about prepositions, his name lends a certain weight to rejecting the rule. My personal favorite, because it covers all the bases and sounds like something Churchill might have said, is Not ending a sentence with a preposition is a bit of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put. (Professor Brians likes This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.) Up with which I will not put, however, appears in every version, and makes the point, whoever might have said it first.

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In The Wordwatcher’s Guide to Good Writing and Grammar, Morton S. Freeman gives examples of sentences which really should end with prepositions:

Where is this man from? (Who but a language snob would say From where is this man? And does that even mean the same thing?)

Fred doesn’t know what it’s all about. (I can’t even fix this one: Fred doesn’t know about what it all is hardly works.)

The little boy had no one to play with. (The little boy had no one with whom to play is certainly correct, but terribly formal.)

This is the world we live in. (Here we’re getting into coin flip territory: This is the world in which we live also works for me.)

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And then there are the clunkers that should only be used in dialog (because, alas, people gremlin-3really do say such things), prepositions that are not only at the end of a sentence but totally unnecessary:

Where is he at? (Where is he? is clearly sufficient.)

Where did he go to? (Stick with Where did he go?)

Trust your ear. Put the preposition where it makes the most sense and sounds right.

There are rules up with which we will not put!

 

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