Correspondence


Procrustean Bed

In the issue of Fall 1997 appeared a delightful article by Robert Steiner concerning the preposition problem - not ending a sentence "with." The rule on never ending a sentence with a preposition arose, apparently, from late 17th-early 18th century determination to establish an English "grammar" based heavily on Latin principles. Among the problems involved in fitting a Germanic language onto an Italic Procrustean Bed lay the fact that the item termed a preposition (a part of speech identified specifically by Dionysius Thrax) by definition could not follow the word it governed, therefore, obviously, could not end a sentence or clause.

If a part of speech is used as a preposition, it still cannot end a sentence. Or, to put it this way, if something that walks like a preposition and talks like a preposition appears at the end of a sentence and makes not only good sense but sounds quite appropriate, it is no longer a preposition.

"The man ran up the street" - even the most cloddish native speaker of English beyond age four would not say "The man ran the street up." "Up the street" is a true prepositional phrase. However, look at "The man burned down the house" ... which can be said sensibly and with no problems for the hearer as "The man burned the house down." And how about "He burns me up" or "Turn the light out"?

Burn up, turn out, turn on, and a host of other common phrases in which we find a verb plus some sort of word that can be identified as also being on the preposition list, are actually verb + what some linguists term "separable particle" and others as "adverbial. …

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