Words to Live By
Something to think about
This is an entry in the Saturday series of Timeless & Timely called “Off the Clock,” where we focus on words, a quirk of history or literature, or something just plain fun. Make sure you don’t miss a single issue.
“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on” — William Shakespeare, 1610
Last week, this charming letter from elemental writing stylist himself E.B. White captured my attention when Letters of Note sent it along:
“The next grammar book I bring out I want to tell how to end a sentence with five prepositions. A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boy says, “What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?””
It reminded me that there was something I wanted to sound off on. Given that we discuss various elements of language here, I thought this was the place to let it all out.
What I Came Across
There are traps in the English language that are more easily fallen into than gotten out of. One of the easiest to get bogged down in are the rules that make it difficult for the person on the receiving end to understand what you’re talking about.
At the beginning of every day, I log on. At the end, I log off. There is much work to be done in between. There are clients I get calls from and interruptions that happen throughout.
And there are at least two newsletters a week that need to be turned out. Each of these has a number of sentences that it’s composed of. Words are what each sentence is made up of.
But what order should these words be put in?
There is a violation of writing rules which I admit I am occasionally guilty of. It’s a trap that is easy to fall into. However, it’s one that I don’t worry much about.
Ending a sentence with a preposition is what I am referring to. The astute reader may discover several instances of what I’m talking about in the very piece you’re now looking at.
Ending a sentence with a preposition is considered acceptable where I come from. (Some people may feel that wherever I come from I should go back to.)
I recall an instance when I ended a sentence with a preposition, realizing full well that it is what some people think you should never, under any circumstances, end a sentence with.
Such people I’m sick to death of, fed up with, and put off by.
Good Company to Be In
If terminal prepositionalism is an error, it is one that there is plenty of distinguished precedent for.
Winston Churchill was famously chided for ending one of his elegant sentences with a preposition, and his withering reply was:
“This is the sort of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
Personally, it all depends on the mood I’m in. Sometimes I don’t write sentences that you would want to put a preposition at the end of. Other times the finale is the position the preposition cries out for.
I once read that Cleveland is a bad city to get something in your eye in. However, as it’s home to the Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland also happens to be a very good city to get something in your eye out in.
This is perfectly logical, since a city people often get something in their eyes in would have a lot of experience in getting things people having gotten in their eyes out.
The placement of prepositions in sentences is not a grammar rule that gets me all riled up. In fact, the people who fuss about such things other ones I get mad at.
There’s a story they tell at Harvard University about a visitor to the campus who asked, “Excuse me, but would you be good enough to tell me where the Widener Library is at?” 1
“Sir,” was the sneering reply, “at Harvard we do not end a sentence with a preposition.”
“Well, in that case, forgive me,“ said the visitor. “Permit me to rephrase my question. Would you be good enough to tell me where the Widener Library is at, you %#&@?“
I think that pretty well sums it up.
Now I’m off to see how my Grammarly score has gone down.
Thanks, and the internet is where I’ll see you on.
A word about the Widener Library: named after Harvard alumnus and rare book collector Harry Elkins Widener (1885–1912), who perished abord the Titanic on his way home from a book collecting trip (relevant to this week’s Story Time). Widener also was a member of the Grolier Club (mentioned in Word Games People Play).