Just like all modern, socially competent, well-adjusted, 24-year old women do, I still regularly listen to my favorite childhood radio drama, Adventures in Odyssey.
That’s a thing we well-adjusted twenty-somethings do, right? We still ask for audiocassette episodes for our birthdays and for Christmas, don’t we? And that’s how we unwind on Friday nights after a stressful week, isn’t it? With our favorite teddy bear (although I would never play favorites between my three bears, who go by the names Nothing, My Nose, and Pepe Adidas Berendt LePew), a glass of warm milk, and a half-hour radio episode about important life lessons like What It Means When Parents Fight and Why Cheating Is Wrong (Here’s A Hint: You’re The Real Loser When You Cheat, Because You Are Cheated Out Of Learning) and Why It’s Cool To Just Say No? And that’s why everyone is always so excited about the weekends, right? Because it means we can stay up late and listen to our favorite episodes? And that’s why everyone has headaches on Mondays? Because on Saturday night, we can binge and listen to three episodes, and we don’t even remember what happened after that, but all we know is that we woke up in our footy pajamas with a milk moustache and we weren’t even tucked into our blankets, can you believe that?
I’m going to just assume that you’re all tracking with me. There’s a particular episode of this show where one of my favorite characters, the show’s brainiac, Eugene Meltsner, is increasingly fed up by his inability to defeat his janitor friend at chess (life lesson: Even Janitors Enjoy Board Games Generally Affiliated With Academia). In frustration, he declares, “I’m convinced this is a game he doesn’t know the rules for!”
Connie Kendall, another favorite character, gasps, “Eugene! You just ended a sentence with a preposition!”
And Eugene replies, “Impossible! Prepositions are not words I end sentences with!”
See, you thought I was uncool for still loving this show. But that was before you knew that they made grammar jokes.
I’ve had a few requests for a post about prepositions and their rules (requisite shout-out to Hilary Denune, who demanded that I shout-out to her), so here we are.
A preposition is a word that establishes a relationship between words in the sentence. Often, this relationship has to do with location, but it can also deal with time and logical relationships. There are hundreds of prepositions in the English language. Some of the most common ones are: above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, during, for, from, in, into, of, on, over, through, to, under, until, upon, with, within, without. I remember those ones in particular because we learned them in a song in sixth grade.
Songs I learned in sixth grade are actually the key way that I remember all important facts and life lessons: the prepositions, the names of the states, and mostly importantly, tic-tac-toe, three in a row, Barney got shot by a G.I. Joe, called the doctor and the doctor said, ‘Whoops, Barney’s dead; shot in the head.’
The key rule we hear about prepositions is this: you should not end your sentences with them. This is the rule Eugene is breaking when he says, “I’m convinced this is a game he doesn’t know the rules for!” and “Prepositions are not words I end sentences with!”
You should try very hard to follow this rule, especially in your writing. Most of the time, it’s simply a matter of changing the word order. Eugene could have fixed his preposition problem by saying either, “I’m convinced he doesn’t know the rules for this game!” or “I do not end sentences with prepositions!”
The reason we grammarians hate sentences that end in prepositions is because prepositions always need an object: a noun or noun phrase will ALWAYS follow a preposition. Over the river, through the woods, to grandmother’s house, etc. Each of these prepositions (over, through, to) is followed by a noun and its modifiers (the river, the wood, grandmother’s house). The preposition and its object are known as a prepositional phrase.
But when a preposition is the last word in a sentence, the whole prepositional phrase thing falls to bits, and grammar-lovers everywhere wince in the same way that lovers of loud talk and small sticks winced whenever Teddy Roosevelt opened his mouth.
The reason I say to “try very hard” to follow this rule instead of “do this every time or I will gut you like a fish or small shark” is because sometimes, especially in speech, rephrasing is so awkward that it’s ridiculous (like me on a date).
There’s a quote attributed to Winston Churchill that demonstrates this point. Allegedly, he once said in response to someone demonstrating some sort of nonsense: “Madame, this is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.” Churchill succeeds in not ending his sentence with a preposition, but he absolutely fails at sounding like a normal human being. I would never suggest linguistic gymnastics like that just to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Still, exceptions like this notwithstanding, my opinion is that it’s almost always better to err on the side of sounding a little stuffy in your writing than risk the wrath of your professor’s red pen.
Now, a final note for all my friends in the Midwest (so pretty much all of my friends): this final consideration applies to everyone, but I think you may benefit especially from hearing it.
Sometimes, you don’t need to rephrase your entire sentence to get rid of the ending preposition. Sometimes, that ending preposition doesn’t need to be there in the first place. Midwesterners, I’ve found, are fond of phrases like, “Where are you at?” or “Where did you go to?”
In cases like this, just cut off that last preposition. “Where are you?” or “Where did you go?” will do just fine. The Midwestern proclivity to add unnecessary prepositions can also occur in the middle of a sentence. Examples:
- I threw my speaker out
ofmy window, shouting, ‘The Who! The Who!”
- My snow globe fell off
- I met
upwith Kareen Abdul Jabar to discuss how I could get taller.
- I met with my friends to smoke candy cigarettes
in back ofthe school. (Use “behind”)
In all of these sentences, I’ve crossed out the prepositions you don’t need. I don’t care if you’re trying to meet a word count or page length requirement. Tacking on prepositions just bogs down your writing. It’s bad form.
I know, especially in the Midwest, this may be a hard habit to break. But you can do it! For Midwesterners, though your stomachs are flabby and your faces puffy, though your winters are brutal and your hair kind of frizzy and big, though your towns are small and your use of corn byproducts high, you are brave: you have good hearts.
Ha. That’s just not true at all. Your hearts have valves clogged with corn byproducts.