Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Word Wise Wednesday: Relax! Here's a Rule You Can Break

Yeesh. I've been remiss in blogging. John has been under the weather and clingy, we've been dog sitting and I've been searching for a dress to wear to my 10 year (!) high school reunion that is in two weeks! I can scarcely believe it! More on that later. If the dress I have my eye on works out, it will make for an especially fun and fashionable Word Wise Wednesday post! (Really.)

I was so thrilled that last week's WWW post generated discussion! I am going to reply but, because of the above goings-on, I haven't had a chance.

For today: Some of you might be constantly haunted by something your high school English teacher told you (I am haunted by many things my high school English teacher told me). You might have been taught a rule that you feel you should observe but you find it nearly impossible to follow all the time. When it is possible, you find that adhering to it strictly, especially in casual conversation, makes you sound like a stuck up word snob (which you may be, but still it makes you uncomfortable to think that others might think that you are just trying to show off your erudition, when really you just love to follow grammar rules).

I'm speaking of the dangling preposition. Does it give you a little pang of guilt every time one slips out, hanging from your sentence like a convict from a noose?

Well, you can relax. It's not necessary to always ensure your prepositions are tucked nicely in their clauses rather than dangling over the precipice of the bad grammar inferno. In fact, sometimes not dangling your prepositions can sound ridiculous, as in this quote attributed to Winston Churchill: "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put."

I have read that the Columbia and the Chicago style manuals agree with this position, but I have not confirmed this personally.

Another ridiculous example: "About what are you thinking?"

I mean, come on. Who talks that way? Not even the staunchest grammarphile will say that. For the sake of not sounding like a pedagogue, let's just dangle that "about" and say "what are you thinking about?" The occasional dangled preposition might just ensure that you still have friends who are willing to have a conversation with you.

So, besides the fact that tucking your prepositions can sound inane, all the "to whom's" and "of which's" required to tuck those prepositions in can make things sound awfully clunky. So, don't worry if your prepositions dangle occasionally. There are times when a dangling preposition sounds cleaner. There are also times when a tucked-in preposition is more graceful. So use your judgment and don't feel guilty about breaking your high school English teacher's rule (in this case)!

BUT, there is at least one situation in which you should avoid the dangling preposition at all costs: when the preposition can be deleted from the clause and the meaning of the sentence will not change, by all means, get that preposition out of there! And quick!

Here's a classic example: "Were are you at?"

There is absolutely no reason that "at" should be there. Just say, "where are you?"

Another example: "Where are you going to?"

Again, if you remove the "to," the meaning of the sentence is still crystal clear. Nix the "to" and say, "where are you going?"

There are other, less urgent, cases where prepositions are unnecessary:

"Sally jumped off of the dock."

"John stood outside of the door."

You really don't need the "of" in either of those cases. You can streamline your writing by culling all of those extraneous prepositions and throwing them into the bad grammar inferno.

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