Archive | September, 2011

You Shouldn’t End A Sentence With A Preposition At

24 Sep

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:

  1. I threw my speaker out of my window, shouting, ‘The Who! The Who!”
  2. My snow globe fell off of my desk.
  3. I met up with Kareen Abdul Jabar to discuss how I could get taller.
  4. I met with my friends to smoke candy cigarettes in back of the 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.


Questions! Questions?

16 Sep

When I first met my boyfriend, we were 13 years old, and his favorite hobby was coming up with pick-up lines.

One day, after church, he purchased a can of Crush from a vending machine and placed it on my head, declaring, “I have a Crush on you.”

That same year, he found (I say “found” to try to ignore the fact that I am almost certain that he probably owned this) a trading card of the alien life-force “The Thing,” and handed it to me, saying, “I’ve got a Thing for you.”

His favorite pick-up line, though, which I have had the pleasure over the years of hearing him deliver to many women, went like this:

“I’m going to ask you a question, and I want a yes or no answer. If I asked you to kiss me, would you answer me with the same answer to this question?”

Say what you will, but I maintain that the real reason that it took me about ten years to actually start dating this guy was because I spent the entire time trying to figure out that stupid pick-up line, and, once I *did* figure it out, trying to figure out why he would use it.

So today, we’re going to talk about questions, question marks, and why your accidental overuse of them in your writing sometimes makes you sound like a high school girl.

A basic sentence that ends with a question mark is called an interrogative sentence.  We’re used to these.

Why did Stephenie Meyer write so many bad books? is an example of an interrogative sentence.  It asks a question and ends with a question mark.

A tag question takes a statement (or a declarative sentence) and turns it into an interrogative sentence.  Again, pretty simple.

Riane, you read all the Twilight books, though, didn’t you? is an example where the question tag “didn’t you” makes the entire sentence interrogative.  Therefore, it ends with a question mark.  Won’t he? Shouldn’t she? Don’t they? are other common examples of tags you might see at the end of tagged sentences.

Tags can also come in the middle of a sentence, and when they do, the sentence should still end with a question mark.

It’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it, that you won’t leave me alone about this whole Twilight thing? is an example where the tag (isn’t it) comes in the middle of the sentence, and therefore makes the whole sentence interrogative.

An indirect question is probably where I see the most mistakes made, even with good writers.  The following are examples of indirect questions:

I wonder if everyone reading this blog has caught on to the intense shame I feel about reading Twilight.

I asked respected friends if they could ever trust me again.

I wonder if Stephenie Meyer knows that Bella Swan is one of the most simpering, lip-biting, literarily narrow-minded characters in the history of–and I use this term loosely–literature.

These sentences all start with phrases that indicate a question–I wonder, I asked.  These sentences, however, DO NOT END WITH QUESTION MARKS.  Even though a question is implied, the sentences themselves are straightforward and declarative.  “I wonder ____.”  “I asked ____.”  These are statements.  End sentences like them with periods.

The last tricky area comes when quotation marks or titles of books, songs, movies, etc., are involved.

The primary thing to remember here is that you should NEVER add a question mark inside quotation marks if it is not part of the title.  Never.  “The Road Less Traveled” is a poem by Robert Frost.

An interrogative sentence about that poem would read:

Have you read “The Road Less Traveled”?

Since it is an interrogative sentence, we know a question mark is necessary.  But the space inside of the quotation marks is sacred.  Leave it alone.  Hey–I said leave it alone.

The same goes when a statement in quotation marks takes place inside of an interrogative sentence.  Quotation marks preserve whatever is inside them in its original form.  They are like the Cling Wrap (TM) of punctuation.

So, say you said to me, “Riane, I think you should seek counseling about your Twilight bitterness.”

If I put that into my own sentence, it might read:

How dare you say, “Riane, I think you should seek counseling about your Twilight bitterness”?

Note that the question mark is NOT inside the quotation marks.  Your original sentence was a statement.  I leave it alone.  It’s MY sentence that’s the question, and so the question mark goes outside.

And that, dudes and girl dudes, is a brief reflection on the question mark.  A related fun fact I learned recently is that the punctuation mark ?! (which, by the way, should never be used in formal writing) is called the interrobang.

Part of me thinks that this is an awesome name.  The other part of me just feels like it’s something that happens in detective agencies that could get you fired.

All the Whoms Down in Whomville

6 Sep

The first time that I called someone who answered her phone correctly, I thought I had dialed the wrong number.


Hi. This is Riane. Is Kelly there?

This is she.

[long pause]


This is she.

[long pause]

There are so many long pauses in this conversation because I kept waiting for her to finish the sentence: This is She … ila.  You have the wrong number.  Please try calling Kelly again; she will answer and say, “This is her” and not sound like she has a stick up her asterisk.  

Kelly was correct, though.  No matter how dated or overly proper “This is she” may sound, it is the correct choice.  To understand why, refer back to last week’s posting on subjective and objective pronouns. The she vs. her/he vs. him discussion (which we began last week) provides the perfect transition into this week’s more difficult pronoun problem: who vs. whom.

The rules are ALMOST the same for deciding between who and whom as they are for deciding between him and he (or she and her).  There is a slight difference, which I’ll explain later.

The backbone of this discussion goes like this:

1. Who is the subjective pronoun, just like she and he are.

2. Whom is the objective pronoun, just like him and her.

Here are some example sentences where the subjective pronoun–who–is needed.

1. Who is this?

Remember, the root of subjective is subject.  Is who the subject (the acting pronoun) of the sentence?  It doesn’t matter if it’s a statement or if it’s a question, like the example is.  If you rearrange the sentence (rearranging sentences makes it much easier to determine whether you’re dealing with a subject or an object), it reads “This is who.”  Who is the subject.  Case closed.

2. My brother, who is running for President, can eat ten pounds of jelly beans in one sitting.

This time, we’ve got a who clause in the middle of the sentence.  Deal with these clauses by themselves.  That means ignoring the rest of the sentence–we are only looking at who is running for President.  This is an example where replacing who with he or him to test our hypothesis helps.  He/she and who always go together (they are all subjects), and him/her and whom always go together (they are all objects).  Often, just subbing in him or he will help you decide if you should choose who or whom.

So in our example sentence, using substitution, you would ask yourself if  he is running for President or him is running for president makes more sense.  The obvious answer is he, and since we’ve already decided that he and who go together (just like whom and him go together), the answer is who.

It sometimes helps me to think of Who as an actual person; in the example sentence, then, I think of Who as a little stick figure with a winning smile.  He is a real guy, with feelings and hopes and aspirations.  Who, which is the name of our stick figure friend, is running for president.


So far, I’ve probably just provided grammatical justification for what you’re already doing: using who no matter what, because whom sounds less like a real word that real people use, and more like a sound you make when you get punched in the stomach.  (The first rule of Grammar Club is that we don’t talk about Grammar Club; also, if you are Brad Pitt, no shirts allowed.)

But sometimes, the right answer is whom.  Here are some examples.

1. You are the one whom I despise.

Remember, take the phrase by itself and ignore the rest of the sentence.  Here, we’re just looking at whom I despise.  As before, flip it around: I despise whom.  I is the subject–it is doing the despising; whom is the object–it is receiving the despising.

Try replacing it with he or him, and see which makes sense: I despise he or I despise him.  If him is the answer (and it is), then whom is the answer.

2. For whom is the letter intended?

Flip the sentence around.  The letter is intended for … whom.  For is the preposition (again, we discussed these briefly last week), and whom is the object of that preposition.  Again, the he/him trick would work here.

A Tricky Reminder

Now here’s an example that may throw you off.

Everybody knows who/whom was responsible for the mural of Charlie from The Mighty Ducks painted on the ice arena’s wall.

If you looked quickly at this sentence, you might guess that whom is the correct answer here.  At first, it looks correct: Everybody is the subject, knows is the verb, and therefore, whom must be the object, you might think.  Whom would appear to be receiving the knowing action that comes from the subject Everybody.

But if you’ll remember, you must look at who/whom clauses and phrases INDEPENDENT of the rest of the sentence.  Pull it out, and ignore everything else.  In this example, we’re looking only at who/whom was responsible.  We don’t care what comes before it, and we don’t care what comes after it.  In this case, now we’ve got a short, simple clause: who is responsible.  Subject, verb, predicate adjective.  Test it out with the substitution trick: is it he is responsible or him is responsible?

The correct sentence therefore reads:

Everybody knows who was responsible for the mural of Charlie from The Mighty Ducks painted on the ice arena’s wall.

The three things you should take from this:

1. Always isolate the who/whom clause.

2. Rearrange the clause if necessary.

3. Substitute he/him to test your hypothesis.

3a. Do you think that the mural was from The Mighty Ducks 1, 2, or 3?  I really feel like the one of most cinematic importance was D2, because that film truly contained all the aspects of an important sports movie: musical training montages, difficult to come by but ultimately beautiful team togetherness, campfire victory sing-a-longs, come from behind finishes, costume changes, but most importantly, the intangible theme that carries the movie: the idea that no matter who we are, or where we come from, or what obstacles stand in our way, we must never, ever trust anyone with an Eastern European accent.  They are going to cut us.

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