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Author Topic: Should you let your prepositions dangle?  (Read 336 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: May 13, 2017, 12:05:36 PM »

Whether prepositions should be allowed to end a clause instead of preceding it, or allowed to dangle at the end of the sentence, is still a hotly debated aspect of English grammar. There are those who staunchly cling to the old dictum that a preposition should always immediately follow the clause it modifies, wherever that clause occurs in the sentence, as the “of” in this example: “The approach of which she is thinking is appealing to our stockholders.” This convoluted expression is supposedly grammatically superior to the following more natural, spontaneously sounding sentence: “The approach she is thinking of is appealing to our stockholders.” (Note that “of” falls neatly at the end of the prepositional phrase “she is thinking of,” instead of right after the clause “The approach” which it modifies). Another supposedly grammatically preferable expression is this: “This is conduct with which I absolutely cannot deal.” And yet it is obvious even to the untrained eye and ear that the following sentence, where the preposition dangles at the end of the sentence, is superior to it: “This is conduct I absolutely cannot deal with.”


So what happened to this protracted war between the non-danglers and the danglers? Nothing definitive, really. In fact, the debate over it had gone on far too long and far too heated that the British statesman Winston Churchill, a masterful user of the English language himself, got so peeved by purists who insisted that he undangle his prepositions. His classic retort: “That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.” This pretzel of a sentence is, of course, what the purists favor over the more elegant, straightforward sentence where the preposition “with” is allowed to dangle freely: “That is the sort of nonsense I will not put up with.” Of course, one would have thought that Churchill’s rant would settle the issue, but it didn’t. Many English-language teachers all over the world still swear to an English totally without dangling prepositions, and will readily (some say wickedly) flunk any English-language student who dares defy the dictum.

Being not a doctrinaire grammarian, however, I look at the dangling prepositions issue in the same way I look at the split infinitives: use them when they make your English more graceful or more emphatic in the precise manner that you intended, and shun them when they make your sentences stilted and wooden. I often dangle my prepositions without guilt when the situation calls for it. Thus, both in writing and in my day-to-day speaking, I absolutely have no qualms saying this: “That is the scene in the movie that I got so excited about.” You will never ever catch me saying it the way the grammar purists decreed: “That is the scene in the movie about which I got so excited.” Again, if I wanted to know what it is that makes you jittery, I will simply ask: “What are you afraid of?” or “What are you fearful about?” I will not play the role of a contortionist and ask: “Of what are you afraid?” or “About what are you fearful?”

There are, of course, many grammatical situations where the purists do have a point. Anyone who has heard the song “Do you know where you are going to?”, which was popularized by Diana Ross in the early 1980s, might well have wondered if there is something grammatically wrong with the question. Well, there is: the demands of lyrical expression aside, there is actually no grammatical need for the preposition “to” in the question. It is superfluous; you could simply ask “Do you know where you are going?”  without raising any eyebrows. Another great step toward clarity and simplicity would be doing away altogether with the preposition “to,” rather than trying to relocate it elsewhere in the sentence, as in the terribly awkward “To where do you know you are going?”  And then we should also be wary of the habitual needless addition of dangling prepositions in our spoken English, as in the following: “Where’s Antonio at?” (Better: “Where’s Antonio?”) “There’s no reason for you to roam around here for.” (Better: “There’s no reason for you to roam around here.” “Where can I get the application forms from?” (Better: “Where can I get the application forms?”)

It is another matter, however, when your English teacher intimidates you into being foolishly awkward simply to avoid a dangling preposition: “There are three aspects of your choice of which you should be certain.” How much easier on the tongue and on the ears it would be to say it this other way, even if the preposition “of” dangled: “There are three aspects of your choice you should be certain of.” However, if your teachers have totally banned dangling prepositions, don’t fight the former! After all, it is their prerogative as defenders of good grammar. But you can avoid being miserable by taking another tack: recast the sentence so it will not need the disputed preposition at all, as in this version: “You should be certain of three aspects of your choice.” That should make both sides of the dangling preposition antagonists happy.

Some situations, of course, will give you a tough choice between dangling a preposition and avoiding it. Take this example: “I hate the things that woman has been ridiculously raving about.” Wouldn’t the sentence be better with “about” undangled? “I hate the things about which that woman has been ridiculously raving.” And what about this next sentence? “The witness personally knew the intruders she was speaking about.” Will it be worth the effort undangling the preposition “about”? Consider, say, “The witness personally knew the intruders about whom she was speaking.” Ticklish!

Just a suggestion then: If you are formally putting the statement in writing, as in a school essay, thesis, or dissertation, place the dangling preposition inside the sentence where they won’t give you any trouble, or else make it disappear if possible. But if you are giving a lecture, speech, or sermon, let the prepositions dangle for whatever they are worth. You will sound much more natural, engaging, and convincing that way!

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently appeared as Chapter 29 in the English Grammar Revisited section of his book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: May 13, 2017, 02:10:52 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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