May 20, 2024

10 Ways Strunk and White Will Let You Down

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There's a lot of good advice in "The Elements of Style." Unfortunately, there's a lot of bad information, too. Here are 10 ways Strunk and White's guide will let you down.

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The myth that won't die
Posted by June on May 20, 2024

Recently I come across this “12 Common Grammar Mistakes You’re Probably Making Right Now” list in Business Insider. Number 10 on their list of mistakes: ending sentences with prepositions.

I thought that my was pretty much dead. But apparently not. So here’s what to know about the idea that you can’t end a sentence or clause with a preposition.

Prepositions are little words like “with,” “at,” “from,” “to,” “until,” “during,” “including” and many more. Many of them refer to physical proximity, like “from” in “the object fell from the sky,” and like “around” in “she ran around the house.” But others don’t, like “before” in “get it done before tomorrow” and “except,” as in “I saw every episode except the last one.”

Prepositions take objects — nouns or pronouns like “Mary” in “with Mary” or “the moon” in “to the moon.” The prepositions show relationships between the object and the rest of the sentence. “I’m talking with Mary. The rocket will go to the moon.”

Look closer and you can see the logic behind the myth: Prepositions take objects, so it’s weird to separate the two and leave the preposition just hanging out at the end of a sentence: “Mary is the person I’m talking with. The moon is the place the rocket will go to.”

You can also see that these forms are a little awkward. Clearly, it’s often best to follow a preposition with its object instead of stranding it alone at the end of a sentence.

But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to end a sentence (or a clause within a sentence) with a preposition. And every expert out there agrees.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Recent commentators — at least since Fowler 1926 — are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety.”

The above referenced lexicographer H.W. Fowler described this belief as a “superstition.”

The most famous pushback against this myth, “This is the kind of pedantry up with which I shall not put” (or any of several similarly worded variations), is often attributed to Winston Churchill. The real author is unknown, as research by linguist and columnist Ben Zimmer has revealed. But the lessons are clear. There’s no rule against ending sentences with prepositions and doing so — for example by contorting your sentence to avoid a simple wording like “put up with” — can be a terrible idea.

June Casagrande is a writer and journalist whose weekly grammar/humor column, “A Word, Please,” appears in community newspapers in California, Florida, and Texas. more

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