Put your prepositions in the proper place

Published 4:14 pm Friday, June 30, 2023

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Some people will wholeheartedly say “rules are made to be broken!”

And sometimes, those people will be right. Like, for example, “don’t wear white after Labor Day” is a silly fashion rule that can be broken to bits. We can totally wear whatever we want any day of the year. Arbitrary fashion decisions made by society mean nothing to me. (Judge me by my out-of-season wardrobe all you want!)

But other times, gleeful rulebreakers will be absolutely wrong. Like, for example, safety regulations are definitely meant to be followed in order to keep everyone alive. That’s not something that should be lightly overlooked just because they’re inconvenient. (I am looking directly at you, Reckless Drivers Who Should Have Their Licenses Revoked.)

So anyone who says “rules are made to be broken” is just generalizing an idea that’s a lot more complicated in real life.

But what about grammar rules?

Again, the verdict is divided. There are people out there who fancy themselves the grammar police and wouldn’t hesitate to point out every single grammar “error” they come across. And then there are the people who think of grammar like that famous quote from the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. You know, the one where Captain Barbossa says “the [pirate] code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”

I’d fall into that second category myself. Grammar “rules” are indeed pretty flexible. As I’ve said before (and will probably say again), the goal with grammar is clarity. If you want people to understand what you’re saying, following the framework of “good grammar” is a great way to start. But you don’t have to be rigidly beholden to the “rules” all the time.

(On a fun sidenote, I learned this point of view from one of my English professors in college. She would often talk about how grammar, punctuation, spelling, and vocabulary can change over time depending on how people used it. Some day, she said, apostrophes might one day be obsolete. But then, she’d also occasionally rant about the local shopping center that was missing an apostrophe in its sign. I guess we all have to draw the line somewhere, right?)

Recently, as I was browsing the articles on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website, one about prepositions caught my eye.

If your middle school grammar lessons are a distant memory and you don’t spend all day writing like me, here’s a brief refresher on prepositions: they’re a part of speech that help show direction or time or introduces an object to a sentence. Common prepositions include at, for, from, around, between, into, until, up, and with. (Though, of course, there are many, many more.)

An example in a sentence from the dictionary: “The keys are on the table.”

The preposition here is “on” which helps show the location of the keys.

You might remember being told in school that you simply cannot end a sentence with a preposition. If you said “where are you at?” then a teacher might have scolded you for breaking the rule. (But, to be fair, this is a sentence where the preposition at the end of the sentence is redundant anyway. “Where are you?” means just the same.)

Merriam-Webster’s article on the subject explains that “there are some prohibitions which have a curiously tenacious ability to stick around, in defiance of common sense, grammar experts, and the way that actual people use the English language.”

Apparently, the “rule” about prepositions got started back in the 1600s with poet John Dryden and grammarian Joshua Poole both independently criticizing preposition placement. Dryden in particular chastised another writer, Ben Jonson, for his “common fault” of frequently putting prepositions at the end of his sentences. As Merriam-Webster noted, Jonson couldn’t really change his ways – he was already dead at the time – but the idea caught on with the general public at least by the 1700s.

As with many annoying quirks of English, the blame can be traced back to Latin. Because of the way syntax works in Latin, you actually can’t end sentences with prepositions there. So these naysayers were really just trying to make English follow Latin rules (even though we don’t speak Latin…)

Anyway, thanks to these people who lived centuries ago, the unnecessary preposition rule has persisted, and plenty of people still have strong opinions about it. The Merriam-Webster article even included snippets of letters to the editor printed in various newspapers the past few years, featuring people who weren’t happy with the reporters’ preposition placement choices. (Thankfully, none of those newspapers included our own!)

But if you think about it, trying to reword your sentence to stick the preposition elsewhere just makes it sound ridiculous and distracts from what you’re really trying to say. “What are you listening to?” works just as well as “To what are you listening?”

And does anyone remember that old poem that asks “what are little girls made of?” It probably wouldn’t flow as well if it was “Of what little girls are made?”

All in all, what I’m trying to say is that sometimes rules are meant to be broken, especially if those rules are silly grammar rules that most people have already thrown out anyway. Grammar is, basically, what we make of it. Feel free to stick prepositions at the end of your sentences like a neat little bow to wrap things up! (See what I did there?)

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.