Friday, November 28, 2008

where to put the preposition

Linguist John McWhorter has noticed that English-speakers are insecure about the correctness of their English. Speakers of other languages, he says, aren’t so self-conscious. Why do English-speakers have the sense that what they say “is somehow full of errors”?

McWhorter traces the source of our insecurity to 18th century grammarians, particularly Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray. McWhorter calls Murray’s “more influential” prescriptive grammar a “knock-off of Lowth’s.”

“[N]either of these men were exactly experts in language … at the time nobody was. Linguistics science as we know it did not exist. … Lowth and Murray labored under the common illusions that a language ought to be a static, unchanging system; that language change can only be decay …” These basic misunderstandings about language make the Lowth and Murray grammars “historical curio[s], rather like an ancient map with blobby, approximate renderings of the continents and sea serpents bobbing in the oceans. …”

“Lowth’s and Murray’s books were founded on the idea that Latin and Ancient Greek had been inherently ideal languages, that the ‘best’ English should follow their grammar, and that to the extent that it did not, it was ‘straying’ from a somehow divinely anointed template. …”

“The problem here is that English is not Latin and did not even develop from Latin; as a Germanic language, its ancestor was a now-lost language similar to Gothic.” Lowth & Murray “are the source of two of the most famous grammar ‘rules.’ The first is that we should not end sentences with a preposition, i.e., that I don’t know what to do it with is linguistic slumming, and that the ‘real, ‘best’ way of putting it would be I don’t know with what to do it.

McWhorter’s example is a little difficult to parse. I don’t know what to do it with?

I’d like you to sweep the porch, Mother says to Child.

There are a broom, a mop, and a shovel leaning against the wall.

I don’t know what to do it with, says the perplexed Child.

OK. I guess that works.

Anway, to get back to McWhorter: “Latin did not place prepositions at the end of its sentences. … In a supreme irony, Lowth himself breaks the rule in explaining it, complaining, ‘This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to’! The fact that English-speakers are so ‘inclined to’ putting prepositions at the end of a sentence is because, quite simply, it is an English rule. … The very naming of little words of position and relationship prepositions is based on Latin structure.”

Tomorrow, the second “of the most famous grammar ‘rules’”: the split infinitive!

source: Word on the Street: debunking the myth of a ‘pure’ standard English by John McWhorter

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