In my last submission to The University News (as my many readers will no doubt remember), I ended the last sentence of the first paragraph with a preposition. I did this cheerfully and with relish. To be clear, I wouldn’t have added another word just for kicks; in this instance, I thought the sentence needed another syllable. But I was happy – tickled, even – to use my public forum to subvert a very silly prohibition against perfectly good and idiomatic English.
Generations of schoolchildren have been taught to never begin a sentence with a conjunction, to never end one with a preposition, and to never, ever split an infinitive along the way. Confidently-stated proscriptions linger in the mind, and as a result, many adults still seem to have the vague sense that good writing consists of an unerring adherence to so-called rules.
Well, there are few absolutes in life, and even fewer in writing. It ought to suffice for sending these “rules” to the grave to note that the vast majority of the greatest English-language writers have begun sentences with conjunctions and ended them with prepositions, and that many have also split infinitives on occasion. (Shakespeare is excepted from this last, for he split only a single infinitive, and that purely for metrical purposes.)
H.W. Fowler can help us to understand the attraction of this sort of rule-breaking. Though famed as a stern “prescriptivist” on language matters, Fowler actually believed in idiom above all. In the section of his immortal “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” titled “Preposition at end,” he defends that practice in terms that apply to other supposed rules. He remarks that “the remarkable freedom enjoyed by English in putting its prepositions late and omitting its relatives is an important element in the flexibility of the language.”
Our native tongue, with its vast vocabulary, its startling variety of prepositions and its singular ability to make nouns of verbs and verbs of nouns, is unique among languages. It is possessed, one could well argue, of an unmatched power for freshness of expression. At any rate, it is not to be judged by the standards of any other language. That Latin doesn’t end sentences with prepositions or split its infinitives is not a good reason for teaching that English can’t either.
Fowler goes on to propose a far better standard: “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, according to the impression it makes on the feeling of educated English readers.”
It is unfortunate that, modern education and modern popular culture being what they are, a precious few of us would be recognized by Fowler as “educated English readers.” I know that I wouldn’t be.
Indeed, thanks to the leveling effects of the 20th century’s democratic culture, fewer and fewer people (even at this university) recognize that there even exists such a thing as the proper and improper use of language. Attack any ugly modern predilection, such as (to choose at random) the use of the erstwhile neutral noun “quality” to denote “high-quality” – as in “That is a quality book” – and you’ll see what I mean. The barbarians, alas, are inside the gates.
But, if we aspire to cultivation, we can all do ourselves the easy service of reading and rereading good writers. In a very real sense, good writing is what good writers have done. Good writers will begin sentences with conjunctions when the added vigor of starting with “but” or “and” is called for. And they will not avoid splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition if the alternative would be awkward or artificial English.
One ought not worship at the altar of what Fowler calls “spontaneous English”; but the god of natural English certainly has a stronger claim on our devotion than the god of dogmatic grammatical humbug. The best writers are guilty of the sins that the schoolmarms condemn so severely with their rules. Perhaps this is because, as St. Thomas says, lex malla, lex nulla, that is, they were never real rules at all.