For Fear Of A Dangling Preposition

You learned the rule when you were growing up.  You turned in a theme or two in English class, and your paper came back swimming in a sea of red ink.  Almost inevitably, one of the comments from your teacher — maybe even with an exclamation point or two — was that you were not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition.

winston-churchill-quote-ending-a-sentence-with-aIf you did, you had crossed the dreaded “dangling preposition” line.  It was a rule right up there with the “dangling participle” and the “dangling modifier” in the anti-dangling English grammar book.  So instead of writing “What do you want to talk about?,” you were supposed to write something forced and weirdly contrived, namely:  “About what do you want to talk?”  It’s one key way in which what we were taught about the written word varies distinctly from actual spoken language.  If your wife told you that she wanted to talk about something and you responded “About what do you want to talk?,” she’d think you’ve gone off your rocker.

Why were we ever taught about dangling prepositions?  I ran across an article yesterday that attributed the rule to John Dryden, a well-known English writer of the late 1600s, who supposedly made two offhand comments about how ending a sentence with a preposition did not seem “elegant.”  It doesn’t appear that Dryden was a crusader about the issue, but according to the article, Dryden’s stature was such that his comments became embedded in the strict grammarian mind at a time when the English language was evolving and becoming more standardized, and ultimately gave rise to the hard and fast red-ink rule that was taught when we were going to school.  Others argue, however, that the anti-dangling preposition view arose because English grammarians borrowed the rule from Latin — which was the language of the learned for centuries — and in Latin prepositions can’t be separated from their objects.

So who really was responsible for that red ink on your high school theme?  Was it one now-obscure British writer who was obsessed with elegance, or was it the dangling Romans?  We’ll probably never know for sure.  The important thing is that the anti-dangling bias has ended, and grammarians now embrace sentences like “Who did you go with?” as perfectly correct — and certainly more natural sounding than the artificial constructions used to avoid some of that dreaded dangling.

Your high school English teacher, and perhaps John Dryden, too, must be wondering where this unseemly and inelegant development came from.

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