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Sunday, June 28, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Writer's Art

Where Should You Put Your Prepositions? Rules To Live By

Universal Press Syndicate

A long time ago, a woman reportedly reproached Winston Churchill for violating the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. "Madam," Churchill is said to have said, "that is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put."

Maybe the old boy never said it, but the pronouncement is sound. There is no such rule on the placement of a preposition. Even in the day of John Dryden, the great Latinist who supposedly established the rule, there was no such rule. Yet to this day, I get letters of bitter complaint from members of an Old Guard. They see what they take to be a preposition at the end of a sentence and they suffer horrible pain.

The pain is unwarranted. Shakespeare ought to be sufficient authority. Hamlet brooded about flying to ills "we know not of." In "The Tempest," Prospero saw the players as "such stuff as dreams are made on." Should we tidy up? "Ills of which we know not," and "such stuff as on which dreams are made"?

In point of fact, a word that offends the Old Guard may not be a preposition at all. It may be part of a verb: At dawn the cavalry will move on. It may be an adverb: Jane is somewhere about. Or it may be an idiom: At his death Mozart was down and out.

Let me recast the supposed proscription: As a general rule, it is better to put a preposition where it usually belongs, before its object, rather than at the end of a sentence. As a corollary rule, it is always better to craft a smooth sentence than a rough one.

This is what we are talking about. A writer for The New York Times did a profile on Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education who appeared at a press conference in Washington: "She spoke hesitantly, almost stuttering, as if the thoughts and words were a new language she was not quite familiar with." The writer could have followed Dryden's Latinist tradition: ". . . a new language with which she was not quite familiar." It would have been a poorer sentence.

But consider this sentence from The Associated Press: "There were no reported casualties in Moscow, which the military clearly was in control of." The sentence grates on the sensitive ear. Better: "There were no reported casualties in Moscow, where the military clearly was in control."

No objection can sensibly be taken to prepositions that are indispensably part of a verb. In USA Today, a headline last month read, "Bad-check prober to step down." Where else would the retiring gentleman be stepping? At the same time, an investigation was stepping up. Fifty members of the House were going out. At least 70 new members would be coming in.

Charles Osgood wrote a pleasant column in January about the old days. Many people see the past as a nightmare they escaped from. Others think of yesterday as something they wish they could go back to. Young Palestinians think of the past as something they should be willing to die for. There's nothing wrong with these constructions.

Let us beware against piling up prepositions. A copy editor on the Las Vegas Sun came up with an infelicitous headline last year: "Graduates of technical school not finding jobs they're in it for." In the Terre Haute (Ind.) Tribune-Star, this headline grabbed a reader's eye: "Artist hangs inflated image of himself up."

A writer for Universal Press Syndicate had a tough time in January with a feature on aprons. She wrote of a woman who "remembers the dresses that some of her aprons were made from the leftovers of." What would the Old Guard say of that? Aaargh! That's what the Old Guard would say.

This last Horrid Example isn't directly in point, but it's irresistible. It comes from Carl Sagan in a piece he wrote for Parade magazine in 1988. He was talking about the danger posed by increasing levels of carbon dioxide:

"Inert, apparently harmless gases used in refrigeration deplete the protective ozone layer; they increase the amount of deadly ultraviolet radiation from the Sun that reaches the surface of the Earth, destroying vast numbers of unprotected microorganisms that lie at the base of a poorly understood food chain - at the top of which precariously teeter we."

There was a sentence that should have been taken out and shot - even though it came from the gifted pen of Carl Sagan.

(Copyright 1992 Universal Press Syndicate)

The Writer's Art by James J. Kilpatrick appears Sunday in the Scene section. Address comments or questions to: Writer's Art, c/o Newsroom, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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