Tuesday, May 29, 2007


A Cherished Superstition

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Feb. 3, 1860):
When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly, -- as that a sentence must never end with a particle, -- and perceive how implicitly even the learned obey it, I think --
Any fool can make a rule
And every fool will mind it.
According to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2002), p. 609, John Dryden was the fool who made the rule, in his criticism of a line from Ben Jonson's Catiline:
The bodies that those souls were frighted from.
Dryden wrote:
The Preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observ'd in my own writings.
One of the learned who obeyed and promulgated the rule was Hugh Blair in Lecture XII of his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783):
A fifth rule for the strength of Sentences; which is, to avoid concluding them with an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word. Such conclusions are always enfeebling and degrading....Agreeably to this rule, we should always avoid concluding with any of those particles which mark the case of nouns,--of, to, from, with, by. For instance, it is a great deal better to say, "Avarice is a crime of which wise men are often guilty," than to say, "Avarice is a crime which wise men are often guilty of." This is a phraseology which all correct writers shun, and with reason. For, besides the want of dignity which arises from these monosyllables at the end, the imagination cannot avoid resting, for a little, on the import of the word which closes the Sentence: And, as those prepositions have no import of their own, but only serve to point out the relations of other words, it is disagreeable for the mind to be left pausing on a word, which does not, by itself, produce any idea, nor form any picture in the fancy.
Thoreau's alma mater, Harvard, adopted Blair's Lectures as a textbook in 1788. The biographies of Thoreau available to me (Henry Seidel Canby, Walter Harding, Robert D. Richardson Jr.) don't mention Blair's name in their indices, and so I cannot be certain that the book was still in use during Thoreau's years at Harvard, although I suspect it was.

John Lesslie Hall, English Usage: Studies in the History and Uses of English Words and Phrases (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1917), § XCIV, pp. 213-217, discusses the history of this taboo in other textbooks. The usually strict H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage (1926), condemns the rule as a "cherished superstition."

Thoreau alludes to this rule elsewhere in his Journal (Jan. 2, 1859):
When I hear the hypercritical quarreling about grammar and style, the position of the particles, etc., etc., stretching or contracting every speaker to certain rules of theirs, -- Mr. Webster, perhaps, not having spoken according to Mr. Kirkham's rule, -- I see that they forget that the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute or an interjection: first of all, mother tongue; and last of all, artificial or father tongue. Essentially, your truest poetical sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb's bleat. The grammarian is often one who can neither cry nor laugh, yet thinks that he can express human emotions. So the posture-masters tell you how you shall walk, -- turning your toes out, perhaps, excessively, -- but so the beautiful walkers are not made.

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