Prepositional Madness

<i> Larry Ceplair teaches history at Santa Monica College</i>

The preposition occupies a place in people’s speaking and writing patterns similar to that taken by the large mammal in the answer to the riddle: “Where does a 500-pound gorilla sleep?” Anywhere it wants. (Not wants to. )

A preposition has no intrinsic meaning; it serves a relational purpose in language usage, linking a noun or pronoun to another word in the sentence. What could be easier? For most people, almost anything.

No more fiendish grammatical demon is known to current practitioners of the English language. Contemporary grammarians have replaced the ancient Chinese adage, “A journey of 1,000 miles must begin with a single step,” with the admonition that the first step toward correct preposition usage must commence with a treatise of 1,000 pages. The rules are difficult to explain, the examples of possible errors virtually limitless, and the distinctions subtle enough to satisfy a hair-splitter. For example, should one be concerned with, by or about an event?

The Fowlers, in their masterful “The King’s English,” insist that “it is quite impossible to write tolerably without a full knowledge, conscious or unconscious,” of prepositional usage. They are quick to note, however, that the rules of correct usage are not chiseled in granite. So most people treat prepositions gingerly, selecting and placing them with (in?) the hope that the choices will not prove too awkward or embarrassing.


Unfortunately for the cause of smooth syntax, the one rule regarding the use of prepositions that the average person can recite is incorrect. That nagging refrain--do not end a sentence with a preposition--frequently produces an awkward alternative, requiring the insertion of “to which” or “with whom” into the middle of the thought. Recently a local sportscaster made a valiant but futile attempt to leap this obstacle when he told his listeners that “Pete Rose thanked the players for whom he played with.”

The classic response to this rule takes the phrase “which I will not put up with” and turns it into “up with which I will not put.” This misses the point twice. First, “with” is the adverbial participle of a phrasal verb and cannot be moved; and the phrase could be rewritten in simpler, more elegant terms to read “which I will not tolerate.”

It is here, precisely, that one encounters the other edge of H. W. Fowler’s spirited defense of the prepositional ending as “a valuable idiomatic resource” whose legitimacy “must be uncompromisingly maintained.” Fowler believes that prepositional misuse is an “offence against idiom” that can only be corrected by “good reading with the idiomatic eye open.”

But many people do not read, or do so only in full retreat from any ocular commandments. They speak, however, with gaping idiomatic mouths, producing a rash of trendy verbal clutter. We are living in an age of superfluous prepositions. No longer are we exploited; we are taken advantage of. People hang in rather than cope, hang out rather than occupy, and hang tough rather than endure. Two pipes are connected up, and meals are finished off. And how, one wonders, is it possible to write down or type up?


There does exist, though, a sign of hope. A deeply recessive anti-verbose gene is clearly at work, forcing people to compensate for this idiomatic heaping (not piling on). Current speech tendencies delete (not drop off) heretofore sanctified prepositional links in the chain of correct grammatical usage. People no longer are graduated from college, they graduate college; he no longer writes to her, he writes her.

But newly converted Fowlerites of the world must beware the trap of complacency waiting to swallow up those whose idiomatic eyes have opened. The gate to preposition usage should read “abandon hope all ye who enter here having merely mastered the use of the preposition as a simple link in the chain of your nouns and pronouns.” Devilish traps remain: Where do the writers of the articles of the misuses of elements of grammar come from?