Monday, April 11, 2011

The Nitpicky English Major's Guide to Grammar: Where's my preposition at?

It's been a long-held tradition, often used as a determinant of a person's skill with language, that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition. 
However, it's rather difficult to construct many kinds of questions without ending in a preposition, as evidenced by these examples.

How does this fit in?
What page does this go on?
Where do we go out?

Many a grammar snob (which I guess I am) turns up his or her nose at these constructions, but then turns right around and uses them.  Yet these constructions are actually correct.  They are not always the best, but they are correct, with one stipulation: they are not appropriate for formal (typically academic) writing. 

The Scribner Handbook for Writers notes that prepositions, as their name indicates, are meant to be placed before their objects, "the noun or pronoun it connects with another part of the sentence."  They usually initiate a prepositional phrase, which (you may remember from a few weeks ago) must be followed by a comma.

So don't you worry too much about using those prepositions at the end of a phrase.  They are okay!  Of course, you should watch for unnecessary prepositions, like the one in my title.  "Where's my preposition?" covers all the meaning necessary.  "At" is not needed, because I've already asked where the preposition is.  The Scribner Handbook for Writers offers another example of unneccessary prepositions:

"We met up with the director at noon." 

This sentence could simply be said like this:

"We met the director at noon."

If you're trying to reach a word requirement for a paper, you could leave in the "up with," but if you're trying to be clear and concise, you don't need them.  Now, I'm generally predisposed to over-wordiness, so I'm not one to talk about being concise, but in my experience, teachers and professors seem to like it.  I'd recommend the shorter sentence in formal writing, but otherwise, I think you could let it go.

Today's Source: DiYanni, Robert, and Pat C. Hoy II. The Scribner Handbook for Writers. Pearson Longman: New York. Fourth Edition. 2004.

3 comments:

Brandi {not your average ordinary} said...

Katie, this was the cutest post. I'm a grammar snob too (I do teach in a writing program, after all), though I've learned that sometimes you just have to let things go. That doesn't mean they don't make me cringe a bit.

... said...

Grammar snob here too. Evidence: own the book "Eats Shoots and Leaves" (apologize foe quotes on book title; iPad limitations). Listen to grammar girl audio blog from iTunes. Also recommend Will Shortz' weekend puzzle on NPR.

Katie Bee said...

Thanks, Brandi! I think grammar snobbery is required for teaching writing, at least a little bit, but I get that feeling where you cringe, yet have to overlook minutiae in favor of more significant factors, like writing a complete sentence.

Aunt K, the fact that you apologized for quotes instead of underlining or italics proves your statement true! That's too funny. I think I'll have to look for that grammar girl audio blog.