Up from out of in under for

The English language often combines verbs with prepositions to form phrasal verbs, and its subject-predicate structure means that many sentences end naturally in prepositions. Yet students, children, writers, and anyone likely to use the language are sometimes instructed not to end sentences with prepositions.

This is bad advice that has been passed on mindlessly for centuries, and seems to have led to embarrassing levels of contemporary silliness. It is an example of what Joseph M. Williams called “classroom folklore”, and good writers generally have the good sense to ignore it. This spurious pseudo-rule – a “cherished superstition” in H. W. Fowler’s words – seems to have originated with John Dryden, and has echoed through the dustier halls of grammar guidance ever since.

If anyone tells you that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, you can safely assume they don’t know what they are talking about. Make good your escape while they insist that they do know “about what they talk” – unless you’re heavily outnumbered, in which case things could get ugly:

Perry Bible Fellowship - Grammar Wizard

[Comic by the Perry Bible Fellowship.]

If there is gladness in the madness, it lies in the many witty and imaginative retorts and plays on natural English syntax. There are amusingly overworked sentences that end in long processions of stacked prepositions:

What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of up for? (parsed here)

and even more tortuously elaborate variants:

What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read aloud to out of from up for?
What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of about Down Under up for?

There are charming lines like the following one from James Thurber’s Alarms and Diversions:

‘It’s a bad city to get something in your eye in,’ the nurse said. ‘Yes,’ the interne agreed, ‘but there isn’t a better place to get something in your eye out in.’

and a more familiar one, often falsely attributed to Winston Churchill:

This is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which I will not put.

Finally there is Morris Bishop’s witty poem ‘The Naughty Preposition’, which was published in The New Yorker on 27 September 1947:

I lately lost a preposition;
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair
And angrily I cried, ‘Perdition!
Up from out of in under there.’

Correctness is my vade mecum,
And straggling phrases I abhor,
And yet I wondered, ‘What should he come
Up from out of in under for?’

Bishop was Professor of Romance Literature at Cornell University, where he was also University Historian. He had a reputation for wit and scholarship, and a flair for limericks and mystique. He seems to have been prejudiced against elves, but who can blame him? At least he was not prejudiced against stranded prepositions.

For more on ending sentences with prepositions, I recommend MWDEU’s historical analysis, sane commentary, and sound advice.

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6 Responses to Up from out of in under for

  1. Faldone says:

    In the cartoon cited the “correct” version would be “You guys have skills with which even I’m impressed.” But, wait. This uses a solecistic which in a restrictive clause! Oh, no! What’s a superstitious grammarian to do?!

  2. Sean Jeating says:

    Like you know from where I am, I see after what you are, Stan.

  3. Stan says:

    Faldone: Ha! Yes, it’s a good illustration of the knots inherent in “classroom-folklore”-based grammar. Should the Grammar Wizard wish to abide by the rulebook superstition and still avoid a grisly death (which, incidentally, reminds me of the infamous classroom scene in Cronenberg’s The Brood), he could have paused for a comma and trailed off at the end: “You guys have skills, with which even I’m impressed…” and then insist that he hadn’t finished his sentence. But I don’t know if the children would have believed him.

    Sean: Nicely done. Moving prepositions before their objects makes sentences more formal, and in many cases stilted, unnatural or downright nonsensical. The language’s great flexibility ought not to be curtailed by prohibitions imported senselessly from Latin. As Fowler advised:

    “The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained; in respect of elegance or inelegance, every example must be judged not by any arbitrary rule, but on its own merits…”

  4. Claudia says:

    Always a new rule comes along. This one I never heard about. May I ignore the whole thing up? And play my usual comme ci, comme ça?

  5. Stan says:

    You’re lucky, Claudia. Please ignore it, and continue to play and write as you do.

  6. [...] Avoiding preposition-stranding (as it’s known) can have deliberately comical results, famously in not-Churchill’s “arrant nonsense up with which I will not put”. And then there’s the well-known line contrived to end in a whole stack of prepositions: “What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of [about Down Under] up for?” [...]

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