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Saturday, 5 October 2013

And don't end a sentence with a preposition

One rule which every dull and unaccomplished word-shoveler knows is that a sentence must not end in a preposition when you are writing in English. Second-rate pedants and fourth-rate teachers have drummed this 'rule' into the thick-boned skulls of countless generations as an item of rote learning which has about the same validity as revolutionary slogans chanted by the masses.

Working writers know this 'rule' has no validity, but cowed by the bellows of the outrageous and outraged herd, they are likely to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition, if only to avoid the accusations of the more bovine sort of reader. The true masters of the language have never had any problem with this rule, which was pilloried most delightfully by Winston Churchill, when he commented that ending a sentence with a preposition was something " . . . up with which we shall not put".

These days, it is worthwhile to ask a simple question which could not have been answered in the past, but which is easy to tackle today, using machine-readable texts. That question: how do the experts of the past stack up? H. G. Fowler told us that just about every English writer of any merit ended sentences in prepositions, but how common was the practice? Was it an occasional lapse, or the regular thing, just as it is in everyday spoken English?

These days, with so many classic texts available in machine-readable form, finding the answer is easy. William Shakespeare's complete works reveal quite a few sentences ending in prepositions. The endings are 'over' (6), 'under' (2), 'up' (79), 'down' (77), 'to' (45), 'for' (45), 'by' (38), 'with' (21) and 'from' (2). All in all, Shakespeare did not seem to think it wrong or inglorious to end a sentence with a preposition.

The King James Bible, generally regarded as a foundation text of modern English, setting many of today's standards, is also available in electronic form. A pass of the global exchange mechanism in my computer reveals the following sentence endings: 9 overs, 1 under, 68 ups, 39 downs, while 'to' ends four sentences, while 'for' ends two sentences. There are 9 sentences ending in 'by', 2 ending in 'with' and 2 ending in 'from'.

Search where you will among the works of classical writers of English, the heroes of literature, and you will find them joyfully breaking the 'rule' that never was. Chaucer did it, Charles Darwin did it, so did John Bunyan and Jonathan Swift, and the Reverend Gilbert White, in his Natural History of Selborne. In fact, no author deemed worthy of electronic storage by Project Gutenberg seems to be entirely free of this wicked sin of ending a sentence in a preposition. As a law of careful writing, it seems only to be honoured in the breach.

And while we are at it, what about that other crime against good language, according to the lowest grade of pedant, commencing a sentence with a conjunction? If that is a true law, then breaking it cannot be a heavy sin, for the translators of the Bible for King James start some 12,500 verses with "And . . .", and about 1400 of their verses begin with "But . . ."

But then again, maybe they did not know the fabled bishop who supposedly first ruled that sentences in the English language may not end in prepositions, or perhaps they knew that the bishop in question was not averse to starting sentences with a conjunction, that it was something he would readily put up with.

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

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