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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." In the English sentence what part of speech a word happens to be is defined not by some one of the old eight rules (which are a mix of actual definition, function, and Latin fragments) but by form, function, and context.

The true prepositional phrase is composed of a "preposition and a noun phrase" (out the door, by Billy, etc.). The separable particle (or adverbial) is part of a verb phrase (take out, stand by) in which the particle follows the verb and may be separated from it and appear at the end of sentence or clause. This is very Germanic and quite native to English throughout its history.

The sentences offered by Mr. Steiner contain such verb + particle phrases: tell off, strike out, look for, blew up. As he says, when "John Smith" sought to alter these so they would not end in "prepositions," the meanings were altered.

What all this palaver of mine boils down to is that a sentence, spoken or written by a native speaker of English, that ends with what looks like a preposition is actually ending with a particle or adverb. Check the nearby verb for accuracy.

Anne LeCroy East Tennessee State University College of Arts and Sciences
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Title Annotation:use of prepositions and prepositional clauses
Author:LeCroy, Anne
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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