Think what you’re dealing with

Think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language, it’s the greatest possession we have.

Professor Henry Higgins, in Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

I came across this quote in the Claire Foges article I discussed in Different accent or bad diction? – Language Miscellany

The quoted passage contains an interesting example of a stranded preposition. A preposition is said to be stranded when it appears near the end of a relative clause, detached from the relative pronoun.

Preposition stranding is common in English, especially in speech and in informal writing. It also occurs in the Scandinavian languages, but I don’t recall coming across it anywhere else.

Here is another example: “This is the paper which I wrote on“. The preposition on is stranded at the end of the sentence. A more formal version, without stranding, could read: “This is the paper on which I wrote”. In this second version, on appears together with the relative pronoun which.

Is it OK to strand prepositions?

Many prescriptive grammarians view preposition stranding as ungrammatical or as a sign of a bad education. On the other hand, descriptive grammarians note that most people strand prepositions and that alternative constructions that avoid the stranding are often ungainly and inelegant.

Stranding prepositions often gives writing a more informal tone. So in more formal writing, it is perhaps best not to strand prepositions too often.

Did Henry Higgins need to strand his preposition?

If Henry Higgins had wanted to avoid stranding his preposition, he might have tried saying: ‘think with what you’re dealing’.

That change really would have made his sentence much harder to understand, perhaps almost impossible. The changed sentence would have made the hearer think that the sentence is discussing something you think with, rather than something you deal with.

That changed sentence would be a garden path sentence: one that leads readers in the wrong direction (‘up the garden path’) by hiding the sentence’s true structure. For more examples of garden path sentences, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/tag/garden-path

That Churchill quote

There is a well known quotation, generally attributed to Winston Churchill. Reputedly, Churchill had become annoyed with someone who had edited his writing to stop him ending sentences to with prepositions. It is said that Churchill retorted: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put”.

In 2 posts on the blog Language Log, Benjamin Zimmer casts doubt on:

  • whether anyone ever actually made this comment
  • whether this comment, if made, was in exactly this form
  • whether Churchill was the person who made the comment.

His posts are at Language Log: A misattribution no longer to be put up with (upenn.edu) and Language Log: Churchill vs. editorial nonsense (upenn.edu)

More on preposition stranding

In another post on Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum sets out his position on preposition stranding: “The mythical rule about preposition stranding being a grammatical fault is indeed nonsense, and it’s not something you should put up with.” But he criticises the rhetorical example by “Churchill” on two grounds:

  • the example contains not just the preposition with but also another item (up) which most grammars treat as an adverb—though Pullum himself regards it as a preposition without an object. English never permits the fronting of such an item.
  • the components of the idiom put up with must occur in that sequence and can’t be changed. So for example, Pullum describes as “decidedly awkward, possibly even ungrammatical, the sentence With how many interruptions must I put up? (I agree with him that it is awkward, but it isn’t ungrammatical to my ear.)

So Pullum concludes that the “Churchillian” example does not support preposition stranding. This is because the purported alternative moves a sequence of 2 prepositions to the front of the clause. That would be ungrammatical anyway, on both grounds given above. Pullum’s post is at Language Log: A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put (upenn.edu)

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