Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Join the Club: Break This Rule


The paycheck that gets directly deposited into my checking account every two weeks is an acknowledgement of my work as a technical writer and editor. I mention that to point out that grammar and word usage are particular interests of mine.

With this knowledge firmly in your grasp, it should now come as no surprise to learn that I found the following quote from You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, by Robert Lane Greene, to be particularly interesting.
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Why is it "wrong" to end a sentence with a preposition? ... Who, upon seeing a cake in the office break room, says, "For whom is this cake?" instead of "Who's the cake for?" Where did this rule come from?

The answer will surprise even most English teachers: John Dryden, the seventeenth-century poet less well known as an early, influential stickler. In a 1672 essay, he criticized his literary predecessor Ben Jonson for writing "The bodies that these souls were frightened from." Why the prepositional bee in Dryden's syntactical bonnet? This pseudo-rule probably springs from the same source many others do: the classical languages. Dryden said he liked to compose in Latin and translate into English, as he valued the precision and clarity he believed Latin required of writers. The preposition-final construction is impossible in Latin. Hence: it is impossible in English. Confused by his logic? Linguists remain so to this day. But once Dryden proclaimed the rule, it made its way into the first generation of English usage books roughly a century later and thence into the minds of two hundred years of English teachers and copy editors.

The rule has no basis in clarity ("Who's that cake for?" is perfectly clear); history (it was made up from whole cloth); literary tradition (Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, Henry Adams, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and dozens of other great writers have violated it); or purity (it isn't native to English but probably stolen from Latin; clause-final prepositions exist in English's cousin languages such as Danish and Icelandic). Many people know that the Dryden rule is nonsense. From the great usage-book writer Henry Fowler in the early twentieth century, usage experts began to caution readers to ignore it. The New York Times flouts it. The "rule" should be put to death, but it may never be. Even those who know it is ridiculous observe it for fear of annoying others.
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Truth is...English is a living language; constantly changing and with almost as many exceptions as there are rules.

2 comments:

  1. I always wondered what this rule was for. Now I know it really isn't a rule to adhere to.

    ;-)

    Thanks, Dewey!

    ReplyDelete