A Word, Please: What not to end a sentence with

Over the years, I’ve talked to a lot of people who believe that, from a grammar standpoint at least, they grew up underprivileged.

The “I don’t know as much as I should about grammar” feeling is rampant and puts a lot of stake in the word “should” — presuming that somebody should have tried harder to school us on the subject. Implicit in this mindset is the idea that, surely, others had it better.

So it would be easy to assume that the offspring of two English teachers would have an unfair edge in the grammar game. But that assumption would be a mistake, as a recent interview by actor Nathan Fillion reveals.

Fillion’s parents taught English and took pains to assure that their son benefited from their wisdom. But that’s not as enviable as it sounds.

“Something that drives me nuts to this day is people ending sentences with prepositions,” Fillion recently told Parade magazine, adding that split infinitives also were a no-no in his house.

A quick refresher: Prepositions are a word class that includes to, with, on, at, in, from, about and for. They give us more information about some other part of the sentence, often about spatial relationships: on top, in the house, over his head.

Prepositions are usually paired with objects, which often are noun phrases or pronouns: with him, at noon, to the mall, from Mary, about them, in the house. That’s why, to me, it’s a little odd to leave a preposition at the end of a sentence all alone without its partner, as in “Who are you going to the mall with” and “Mary is who that gift is from.”

But that’s just my take on it. The anti-terminal-preposition police have different reasons: mainly, that someone they respected said this structure is a no-no and they believed it. But it’s just not true.

“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,” according to “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.” Other experts, including H.W. Fowler and “Chicago Manual of Style” co-author Bryan Garner, have a word for it: “superstition.”

So if there’s nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition, why do so many otherwise knowledgeable people run around saying otherwise? Merriam-Webster traces it back to 17th century essayist and poet John Dryden, who once called this preposition a “fault” of some writers.

In decades that followed, others echoed Dryden’s belief until 1784 when Noah Webster wrote in a grammar book that the sentence-ending preposition was against the rules. By the early 19th century, three of the most widely used grammar books, including Webster’s, were decrying this crime against the language: “the topic entered the general consciousness through schoolteachers and, as we have seen, it persists there still,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

One man’s opinion was misinterpreted as fact and the myth just won’t die. What’s more, in some sentence structures, there’s no place for a preposition to go but at the end. “The man that I am speaking of” could be changed to “The man of whom I am speaking,” but not without a significant structural overhaul of the sentence.

“I know what you are thinking of,” Jane Austen wrote in “Mansfield Park,” perhaps could have been “I know of what you are thinking,” but only by changing the object of the verb from what the writer intended.

“The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English,” “Merriam-Webster’s” writes. “It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.”

I would add: it would be just as pointless to envy them.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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