Sunday, September 4, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Writer's Art

Dumb Grammar Rules, Up With Which We Will Not Put

Universal Press Syndicate

Letters continue to come in - though not so often as they used to come in - from readers who believe that a preposition must never appear at the end of a sentence. This is a rule implanted by ignorant pedagogues of another time. The supposed rule is no rule at all.

This is what we are talking about:

-- From Time magazine, last January: "Then Kerrigan took off for California to shoot a Reebok commercial - just the sort of lucrative deal Harding dreams of."

-- From columnist Ellen Goodman, also writing about ice skater Tonya Harding: "She was also abused by her husband, whom she divorced but then moved back in with."

It would take a truly tin-eared writer to believe these perfectly acceptable sentences would be improved by recasting them. "Just the sort of lucrative deal of which Harding dreams"? Aaargh! ". . . by her husband whom she divorced but back in with whom she then moved"? Double aaargh!

Such stilted constructions grievously offend the writing art. The venerable H.W. Fowler condemned them long ago. For a Horrid Example he used the sentence, "That depends on what they are cut with."

The sentence is not improved, said Fowler, by "That depends on with what they are cut."

This was Fowler's advice to hesitant writers: "Follow no arbitrary rule, but remember that there are often two or more possible arrangements between which a choice should be consciously made. If the final preposition that has naturally presented itself sounds comfortable, keep it; if it does not sound comfortable, still keep it if it has compensating vigor, or when among awkward possibilities it is the least awkward."

Professor George Curme, the foremost American grammarian of this century, took the same sensible view. He observed that many words that appear to be prepositions are in fact prepositional adverbs: "Jack fell down." Other apparent prepositions are integral parts of the governing verb: "Come now, let us saddle up." Other constructions are idiomatic: "What is that boy up to?"

In sum, let us cease worrying about a "rule" that never was a rule.

On something else entirely: Some months ago I staunchly defended Meg Greenfield for a sentence in one of her fortnightly essays for Newsweek. She was writing about the fiasco that developed when President Clinton nominated Bobby Inman to become secretary of defense. Public figures, she said, ought not to be thin-skinned.

"I mean that they have to establish, if you will, some kind of hard-shelled comfort level under attack . . ."

The controversy developed over her little phrase, "if you will." I found nothing amiss in the usage. I thought it a civil insertion, a kind of grace note, a spot of oil to lubricate the wheels of discourse. A number of surly readers wrote in to say that "if you will" was a waste of words and space.

Well, the last word comes from Meg Greenfield herself. She wants no defense, staunch or otherwise. She writes:

"I side with those who are against `if you will.' It is an arch phrase that I believe I hadn't used before and one that I habitually edit out of other people's copy.

Harumph! Despite Meg's renunciation, I will not retreat. To be sure, there are times when such an inoffensive interpolation is out of place.


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) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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