Prescriptivism and preposition stranding in
Nuria Yáñez-Bouza (contact)
(University of Manchester, UK, Universidade de Vigo, Spain)
2005, published January 2006 (HSL/SHL 6)
against ending a sentence with a preposition has traditionally been a matter of
concern for normative grammarians, who are in search of regularity, refinement
and proper use of the language. Sentences like those in (1) were severely
criticised in the eighteenth century as being colloquial, inelegant, improper or
even harsh (Sundby et al. 1991:426-428), and ever since, end-placed prepositions
have been frowned upon in grammar books and usage guides (e.g. Alford
1864:§§201‑204; Fowler and Fowler 1931:92; Crystal 1995:194; Burchfield 1996:sv. ‘prepositions’).
(1a) Who are you talking to?
(1b) I was shouted at for being late at work.
construction illustrated in (1) above is generally known as preposition
stranding, which Denison (1998:220) defined as the syntactic phenomenon whereby
a preposition is left in a deferred, i.e. stranded, position at or near
the end of a clause without any immediately following object. It must be noted at
this point that there is a close link between the occurrence of stranded prepositions and
informal discourse situations, since style has been one of the primary reasons
for grammarians to criticise the phenomenon in question: preposition stranding
has always been used more frequently in informal style and spoken language; it
is “one of the outstanding features of our language” and “is so natural … that
we have extended this usage beyond its original boundaries” (Curme
1931:chXXIX.§62.4; cf. also Poutsma 1928:chVIII.§86, chXXXIIX.§28; Quirk et al.
1985:§9.6; Biber et al. 1999:§22.214.171.124-4; Huddleston and Pullum 2002:ch7.§4.1).
Yet, the proscription “still raises its head today” and the practice is as often criticised now as then (Beal 2004:84-85,112). Those who are aware of the norm
and are sensitive to stylistic differences in language would regard stranded
prepositions as bad grammar and might carefully and consciously resort to
alternative constructions, mainly in formal and/or written styles (Tieken‑Boon
van Ostade 2000:885; cf. §4). Examples of such strategies may be found in (2)
and (3) below:
(2a) That tiny hole is the place which the
mouse escaped from.
(2b) That tiny hole is the place from which
the mouse escaped.
(2c) That tiny hole is the place wherefrom
the mouse escaped.
(3a) My car was broken into last night.
(3b) Somebody broke into my car last night.
contexts, the preposition would be fronted together with its object as in (2b),
a construction known as pied piping, or it might be combined with the relative
adverb where as in (2c), even “running the risk of creating an impression
of pedantry and stuffiness” (Huddleston and Pullum 2002:ch7.§4.1, ch12.§3.5.3; cf.
also Burchfield 1996:sv.‘where-compounds’). There are still other
syntactic strategies available to the speaker, as in (3), where the passive
sentence requiring the preposition to be stranded (3a) is turned into the
active, thus followed by its object (3b).
Curiously enough, some eighteenth-century grammarians called for some of these
strategies, as, for instance, the “exchange” of a prepositional verb for a
transitive verb suggested by Philip Withers (21789):
It may be said,
it is absolutely unavoidable on particular occasions. v.g. The Stock was disposed OF BY private contract … But an elegant writer
vary the phrase, or exchange the “verb” than admit so awkward a concurrence
of prepositions. v.g. The Stock was SOLD by private contract.
(Withers 21789:391; capitals in original)
possibility of having various strategies available to the speaker if he/she is
determined to avoid the stigmatised form, in my research I have decided to
include all instances of preposition stranding in the analysis (Yáñez-Bouza
2004, 2005a, in prep. a). The common procedure in the literature, however,
is to consider only those linguistic contexts in which there is free variation
between preposition stranding and pied piping, thus excluding from the
statistics the so-called knock-out contexts in which there is no choice (e.g.
passive clauses); yet, it must be noted that these studies are focused on the
analysis of syntactic variation between these two particular constructions only,
whereas my investigation is primarily focused on the use of preposition
stranding from a broader perspective (Guy and Bailey 1995:155‑160; Bergh and Seppänen
2000:310-312.fn12; Huddleston and Pullum 2002:ch7.§4.1; cf. Biber et al.
In this paper two main topics will be discussed. In the first
place, I will survey the historical context in which the rule against ending a
sentence with a preposition was laid down, thereby offering new insights into
the extent to which prescriptive ideals such as the ideals of correctness and
politeness were responsible for the stigmatisation of this construction.
Secondly, my analysis of the use and distribution of preposition stranding in
six formal and informal prose genres will shed more light on the impact of
eighteenth-century normative grammars on contemporary written usage, in line
with previous studies which have investigated other morphosyntactic features
(e.g. Tieken‑Boon van Ostade 1994, 2002a, 2005, forthcoming; Percy 1996;
Oldireva Gustafsson 2002; Auer and González-Díaz 2005).
As observed by Finegan, “when one thinks of English
literature during the Renaissance, it is drama that comes to mind … but when one
thinks of the eighteenth century, prose comes to mind” (1992:107;
my emphasis). Thus, the material under investigation has been retrieved from
part B of Milic’s Century of Prose Corpus (COPCB), a half‑million
word diachronic corpus of British English produced by less well-known writers
from 1680 to 1780 (Milic 1990, 1995). The six genres selected are letters and
travelogue, fiction, educational treatises, essays, and history, which altogether
consist of approximately 120,000 words of running text. The analysis of this
relatively limited amount of material will serve as a pilot study for a
large-scale investigation of preposition stranding from a historical
sociolinguistic perspective (Yáñez-Bouza in prep. a). A final comment about the
methodology adopted for the purposes of this paper is that the time-span in
question has been divided into two subperiods, namely 1680‑1740 and 1740-1780,
the main reason being that the bulk of normative grammars and dictionaries were
published during the second half of the eighteenth century.
The effect of prescriptive ideals such as the ideal of correctness and the ideal
of politeness would therefore only possibly have been an issue during the latter
part of that century.
2. Authority in language
ranging from 1680 to 1780 as represented in the COPCB covers a crucial
period of development in the history of English due to the unstable and varying
attitudes towards language with regard to syntax and prose style. The final
decades of the seventeenth century marked the beginning of a widespread public
awareness and consciousness of language change, and also of a large-scale
discussion about the English language such as had never before taken place. As
described by Söderlind (1964:124), the Restoration period, a period of social
and political turmoil, “longed for prescription”, for improvement, refinement
and fixing of the language. Among the late seventeenth‑century literati, John
Dryden (1631‑1700) expressed his self-confidence of living in a new time when he
referred to Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare as those who belonged to “the
last age”, those whose language he set out to correct (‘Defence of the Epilogue
to The Conquest of Granada’, 1672). It was the beginning of a new era
which brought about new ideals such as the ideal of correctness and the ideal of
politeness. It was the birth of the “appeal to authority” (Baugh and Cable
2002:253‑295), and of what might be referred to as “Authoritarian English” (Nist
The eighteenth century has been defined in many general
histories of English as “an age of prescriptivism, when the ‘doctrine of
correctness’ held sway” (Beal 2004:89). According to Rydén (1984:513-514), “the
18th century in itself is the first century to evince a more massive interest in
syntactic usage, albeit primarily from a prescriptive or proscriptive angle: the
grammarian, not usage, became the official arbiter of language”. Calls for an
academy of English language had been made by prestigious writers such as John
Dryden (1664), Daniel Defoe (1697) and Jonathan Swift (1712), but the project
never took off. The codification of the English language was instead in the
hands of “a band of independent entrepreneurs” who stated dogmatic assertions
with authoritarian attitudes according to their own predilection (Finegan
1992:121, 1998:536-547). These codifiers were viewed as being endowed
with authority on
language and their “ipse dixit pronouncements” (Leonard 1929:35‑44;
Finegan 1998:572; Beal 2004:115-116) as “Authoritarian English”.
The eighteenth‑century normative grammatical tradition was
based on reason, analogy, propriety, decorum, politeness, and, above all,
correctness. Leonard (1929:81), for instance, notes that a great many
observations made by eighteenth-century grammarians were meticulous, the
emphasis being on matters of logic and analogy to the extent that some existing
forms were wrongly (re‑)interpreted when compared to Latin structures. Forms not
paralleled in Latin grammar were condemned as bad, incorrect, inaccurate,
absurd, inelegant, or branded as solecisms.
At the time, the ars recte dicendi (‘the art of speaking correctly’)
implied that alternative expressions with the same meaning or function could not
be all correct, so that one of them would inevitably be doomed to
Alongside the ideal of correctness, the ideal of politeness
was crucial too. In a period of considerable linguistic self-consciousness like
the eighteenth century, writers associated grammatical correctness with “the
genteel concern for politeness and refinement” (Finegan 1992:106), so that
“these initiatives in linguistic prescription were linked to the ideals of
politeness” (Klein 1994:31; cf. also Watts 2002). Thus, towards the end of the
seventeenth century, Daniel Defoe (?1661-1731) had launched a call
to encourage Polite Learning, to polish and
refine the English Tongue, and
advance the so much neglected faculty of Correct Language, to establish
Purity and Propriety of style, and to purge it from all the
Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduc’d (An
essay upon projects, 1697:233).
In the decades
to come writers such as Shaftesbury, Addison, Steele, and Swift expressed
similar opinions. While in the early century politeness was primarily concerned
with “pragmatic language behaviour”, that of “the polite urban, metropolitan
gentlemen”, after the mid‑century there was a shift in the cultural and social
dimensions with important implications for linguistic usage, what Klein (1994)
called polite prescriptivism: the “overt statement of rules in support of a
single and specific standard”; a standard, correct form which would be
identified with the language used by the educated class in polite London circles
(Stein 1994:8; cf. also Leonard 1929:169; Watts 2002:162). One example of this
model of correct language based on the polite society is the standard
pronunciation described by Thomas Sheridan (1719‑1788) in his Course of
Lectures on Elocution (1762), where he states that
… all who have an
opportunity of being informed of that pronunciation, most used by men
of education at court, will have the best authority on their side; as
that is indeed the only standard we can refer to, in critical cases, as
well as others (Sheridan 1762:36; cited in Watts 2002:166).
3. Prescriptivism and
stranding was one of the items that called for comment in this era. Firstly, the
placing of a preposition at the end of a sentence had no equivalent in Latin
syntax, on which the majority of the normative grammarians based themselves for
their linguistic strictures. Latin grammar demanded the sequence
preposition+object, i.e. pied piping. Secondly, according to the etymology
of the term preposition, from Latin prae- ‘before’ and ponere
‘place’, the preposition ought to be placed before the word it governs. Indeed,
the prepositive character is the “customary description” of this part of
speech in eighteenth-century grammar books (Michael 1970:454-461), as for
instance in Michael Mattaire (1712:92), who observed that “[preposition]
signifies a word placed before, and therefore governing and requiring another to
follow”. Furthermore, the craze for regulation and standardisation of the
language would rule out variability between syntactic constructions: only one
variant would be correct. As described by Sundby (1998:476), most
prescriptive grammarians were
“anti‑variationist”, so that when they were “confronted
with two syntactic variants … the logical outcome of this kind of thinking was
to reject the inferior type out of hand”. With regard to preposition stranding,
the outcome was that stranded prepositions became
stigmatised while other alternatives were prescribed.
John Dryden appears to have been the first writer to attack the use
of end‑placed prepositions, probably as a result of applying the rules of Latin
syntax to English and of applying the above-mentioned logic of the etymology of
Of his two known pronouncements on the matter, the first one occurs in his
revisions of common errors of “the last age” when he frowns upon two examples of
preposition stranding in Ben Jonson’s Catiline (1611):
The waves, and dens of beasts cou’d not receive
the bodies that those souls were frighted
preposition in the end of the sentence; a common
|fault with him, and which I have but lately observ’d in
my own writing.
What all the several ills that visit earth,
plague, famine, fire, could not reach
the sword nor surfeits, let thy fury do.
Here are both the
former faults: for, besides that the
Preposition unto, is
plac’d last in the verse, and at the
half period, as is redundant, there is the former Synchaesis …
(‘Defence of the Epilogue to
The Conquest of Granada’,
1672, in Görlach 1991:251)
Shakespeare did not escape Dryden’s critical eye either. For instance, Bately
(1964:274.fn1) noticed that Dryden altered two stranded prepositions in
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1609) when he re-wrote the play in
1679, so that “What were you talking of?” (1609:I.ii.6) became “What were
you a talking?” (1679:6), and “I was sent for to the king”
(1609:I.ii.6) was re-written as “My Lord, the King has sent for me in
In spite of its having been used by the best Elizabethan
writers, Dryden found the construction “inadmissible” and, in accordance with his
own stricture, he consciously ceased to place prepositions at the end of a
sentence after 1672. Moreover, the writer is well known for having corrected
this “fault” in his own writings as “a move towards greater propriety of
language” (Ker 1900:I.xxvii). For instance, the reprinted edition of his
Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1684) contains a good number of modifications
of the type “the age I live in” (1668:6) into “the age in which I
live” (1684:4), and sometimes he even altered the expression by changing a
prepositional verb into a transitive verb: “often call’d for and long
expected” (1668:3) into “often desired” (1684:2) (cf. Withers’s passage
in §1 above). The expressions would now agree with a more sophisticated and
A second remark on the ‘faulty’ use of preposition stranding
is found in a letter written to William Walsh (1663-1708) in reply to the young
poet’s petition to “look over” a discourse he had “writt in haste” about women (A
dialogue concerning women, 1691). Among other “little criticisms” made with
“a little malice” on the manuscript of this work, Dryden remarks that
in the correctness of the English … I remember I hinted somewhat of concludding
[sic] your sentences with prepositions or conjunctions sometimes, which is
not elegant, as in your first sentence – See the consequences of
(Letter to Walsh, early 1691, in Ward 1965:34.Let.17).
enough, Walsh followed suit and was determined to “take care to correct those
little faults” Dryden had pointed out (Ward 1965:36.Let.18). Among them, the
stranded preposition in the opening sentence of the printed edition was modified
“precisely as Dryden suggests”:
‘TIS a dangerous
thing, Madam, it must be confest [sic], this Conversing with fair Ladies; and it
draws us into Inconveniencies, of which we do not at first see the Consequences (A dialogue concerning women, 1691:1).
In order to
unearth the eighteenth-century grammarians’ attitudes to preposition stranding,
I have compiled a corpus of instances of preposition stranding not only as a canon of
negative precepts (cf. Sundby et al. 1991:2) but as a canon of the many and
varied observations made on the use of end‑placed prepositions in the course of
the eighteenth century. The material has been drawn from a thorough examination
of 285 works written by 149 different authors from 1700 to 1800, inclusive, as
documented in the Eighteenth‑Century Collections Online (ECCO). This new
corpus consists of over 1,000 passages in which this syntactic phenomenon is
referred to in some way or another, whether to simply describe the idiom as part
of the English language (e.g. William Turner 1710; William Ward 1765; Daniel
Fenning 1771), or to defend and/or advocate the custom (e.g. Hugh Jones 1724;
Joseph Priestley 1761; George Campbell 1776), or, most often, to criticise and
proscribe the usage as inelegant, improper, harsh, and even as false grammar
(e.g. John Mason 1749; James Buchanan 1767; Hugh Blair 1771).
Typical examples of the kind of comments found with neutral and favourable
opinions are the following:
Q: Why are these words called prepositions?
A: Because they
are commonly placed before the words, to which they refer: as He wrote
it with a pencil; He gave it to his sister.
Q: Are they
always so placed?
A: No: they are
sometimes placed after the word, to which they refer; as How much did you buy
it for? Instead of, For how much did you buy it? (Fenning 1771:79-80)
With respect to
real harmony … It is often really diverting to see with what extreme caution
words of such frequent occurrence as ‘of’ and ‘to’ are prevented from fixing
themselves in the close of a sentence; though that be a situation they
naturally incline to, where they favour the easy fall of the voice, in a
familiar cadence; and from which nothing but the solemnity of an address
from the pulpit ought to dislodge them; as in any other place they often give
too great a stiffness and formality to a sentence (Priestley 1761:50-51).
unfavourable comments, I have found prescriptions alongside proscriptions: not
only did grammarians state what people ought to say but also what people
ought not to say (Nist 1966:272; Arnovick 1997:136). Thus, the position
of the preposition before the pronoun was often prescribed; for the
most part the position at the end was proscribed. One example of the former type
of prescriptive comment is found in James Buchanan’s Regular English Syntax
(1767), in which he observes that preposition stranding
common discourse, and in familiar style; but it is certainly more elegant
to place the preposition immediately before the relative, especially in
the solemn style. ‘It is the God of the universe whom we worship, whom
there is none like to, and whom we live, move, and have our being
in:’ Here the inelegance of the sentence is glaring; it ought to be
to whom there is none like, and in whom we live, move &co.
An example of
the latter type of proscriptive comment appears in Matthew Raine’s English
Rudiments (1771), where he laid down the rule that the expression with
preposition in the latter part of the sentence;
as, He is a person whom I am much pleased with. This is a truth,
which you do not like to be informed of. Whom do you speak
to? … ought not to be imitated, as the preposition always stands
most gracefully before the relative (Raine 1771:142).
4. Preposition stranding in
the Century of Prose Corpus
relationship between prescriptivism and preposition stranding having been presented
in its historical context, the question now is to what extent the prescriptive
ideals and the prescriptive grammarians’ remarks against placing a preposition
at the end of the sentence had an effect on contemporary usage, in particular,
on contemporary written prose. To this end, I will first present data concerning
the use of preposition stranding from 1680 to 1780, followed by my analysis across
the six prose genres selected in the COPCB.
4.1. Eighteenth-century usage
The figures in
Table 1 below represent the main trends in the use of preposition stranding from
the late seventeenth century to the late eighteenth century. The data show a
clear contrast between the two subperiods examined in that the construction was
quite popular in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century prose writings
(i.e. 23.3 per 10,000 words), but the usage of end-placed prepositions was
remarkably reduced after the mid-eighteenth century (i.e. 11.7 per 10,000
Table 1. Diachronic evolution of preposition stranding in
(absolute figures, normalised frequencies and percentages)
For its part,
Table 2, which represents the occurrence of stranded prepositions excluding
knock‑out contexts in the data from the COPCB (cf. §1),
reveals that the trend identified above is consistent. The use of the
stigmatised idiom shows a similar decline from the earlier to the later period,
both as regards normalised frequencies (i.e. 4.9 > 3.1 per 10,000 words,
respectively), and percentages (i.e. 70% > 30%, respectively).
Table 2. Diachronic evolution of preposition stranding in
excluding knock-out contexts (absolute figures, normalised frequencies and
social change can give impetus to language change (Nevalainen and
Raumolin-Brunberg 1989:70), the explanation for the development of preposition
stranding across time may well be found in the cultural, social and historical
background of the (sub)periods, in particular in the flux in attitudes towards
language. As discussed above, attitudes towards the vernacular changed
substantially in the time‑span under investigation, and those changes might have
been reflected in the use and distribution of linguistic constructions such as
The first period can be said to continue the Baconian
tradition characteristic of the seventeenth century, which promoted
conversational and plain styles in response to a general preference for
rationalism over emotionalism, and bolstered by some members of the Royal
Society who aimed at simplifying expository prose writings. Thus the occurrence
of preposition stranding, the informal vernacular idiom, is noticeably frequent
in the data collected from 1680 to 1740. The tenor changed, however, in the
mid-eighteenth century when prescriptivism began to play a role and may possibly
already have had the effect on language users that is indicated by the decrease
in usage illustrated in Tables 1 and 2. As pointed out by McIntosh (1998:179),
not only did the number of grammars published increase “tremendously” after the
mid‑century, but “the messages that grammars were sending to their readers
changed”, too: grammarians overtly set out to correct the “mistakes” found in
established writers such as Addison, Swift and Pope. Robert Lowth was one of
it will evidently
appear from these notes, that our best authors for want of some rudiments
of this kind have sometimes fallen into mistakes and been guilty of
palpable errors in point of grammar … they may be sufficient to answer the
purpose intended: to evince the necessity of the study of grammar in our own
language (Lowth 1762:ix-x).
were of a particular nature: common idioms, colloquial expressions, or the
language of the vulgar. Like other rhetoricians, lexicographers and influential
writers of the time, Lowth was very sensitive to stylistic differences in
language and in his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) he
showed his preference for “a style of writing that is distinct from speech”,
favouring aristocratic standards while stigmatising linguistic features
characteristic of informal language (Finegan 1992:124). Preposition stranding
was one of them:
This is an idiom,
which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common
conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but
the placing of a preposition before the relative, is more graceful, as well as
more perspicuous, and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style
As many other
eighteenth-century grammarians, Lowth was reluctant to syntactic variation, and
guided by the oft-quoted principles of purity, perspicuity and
precision of expression, he was “bound to treat
one [variant] as more precise, perspicuous or pure than the other”
(Sundby 1998:476; see also §3), namely the
construction with the preposition “before”.
Lowth’s insightful observations have been plagiarised to a
large extent in many contemporary and later grammar books (Yáñez‑Bouza in
prep. b), and although recent studies have shown that his strictures were
not as dogmatic as generally thought (e.g. Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1997, 2002b,
2005, forthcoming; Beal 2004), ever since, there has been a general tendency to
avoid stranded prepositions in literary styles and written registers, which are
more elaborated and planned than speech and, therefore, more vulnerable to
normative pressure (Bergh and Seppänen 2000:312; cf. also Visser 1970:§412; Quirk
et al. 1985:§1.17; Huddleston and Pullum 2002:ch7.§4.1).
To this, we can add the influence of the ideology of polite
prescriptivism mentioned above (cf. §2). Eighteenth-century grammarians,
lexicographers and rhetoricians codified “a single and specific standard” so
that the correct form was “that of gentlemen” (Leonard 1929:169), hence
conveying the value of being polite usage, and those who used the correct forms
would be considered polite persons. The other side of the coin is that the
incorrect forms would be stigmatised and those who used them would be considered
socially inferior. The use of standard language became thus “an indispensable
attribute of anyone belonging to, or aspiring to belong to, ‘polite society’”
(Watts 2002:155,167; cf. also Stein 1994:8). Withers’s (21789)
quotation below illustrates the importance of this “distinction” in late
will extend to such phrases only as people in decent life inadvertently
adopt … Every novelty in dress is purchased with avidity, and all remonstrance
silenced by an appeal, not to propriety but to property … Hence the importance
of early attention to Purity and Politeness of Expression: it is the
only external distinction which remains between Gentleman and a
Valet; a Lady and a Mantua-marker (Withers 21789:160‑161).
4.2. Usage according to
The analysis of
the textual distribution of preposition stranding presented in Table 3 below is
particularly interesting in that it sheds more light on the question of to what
extent eighteenth‑century normative grammars had an impact on the actual usage
of this particular construction in contemporary prose writings. Not only does
the general frequency of stranded prepositions decrease, as shown in Table 1 and
Table 2, the decline is consistently reflected across five of the six genres
selected from the COPCB, the exception being history, which remains
Table 3. Textual distribution of preposition stranding in
(absolute figures and normalised frequencies)
In order to
describe usage across genres, we must take into consideration the prose
stylistic trends during the period in question. Finegan (1992:104-105),for instance, observes that in a time of great
social, political and intellectual change as the late seventeenth century and
the eighteenth century were, the “flux in linguistic attitudes” which especially
affected “notions of good English and grammatical correctness” prompted the
“flux” in ideals of “what constituted good prose style”, and also
self‑consciousness of stylistic differences in language between oral/informal
and literate/formal forms.
Previous studies have described the stylistic drift of
various prose genres in Modern English based on a multidimensional approach to
register variation (Biber and Finegan 1988, 1989, 1992,
1997; González‑Álvarez and Pérez-Guerra 1998; Biber 2001).
Their analysis of three dimensions which show
differences between the ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ styles, namely ‘Informational vs.
Involved Production’ (Dimension 1), ‘Elaborated vs. Situation-Dependent
Reference’ (Dimension 3), and ‘Abstract vs. Non‑Abstract Style’ (Dimension 5),
points to a general tendency for genres to develop towards a more oral style,
involved and conversational, in the seventeenth century in line with the
“accessible prose” scientists and humanists were aiming at, helped by growing
literacy and the broader audience from rising middle‑class readership. Oral
dimensions are still found in early eighteenth‑century writings, but
throughout that century, prose genres consistently evolved towards a more
literate style in the formal/informal stylistic continuum, one which was less
involved, more abstract, more elaborated and carefully planned
In response to conscious aesthetic preferences, eighteenth-century writers would
despise the colloquial and would privilege literate norms in favour of a more
flowery, rhetoric and “purple prose” (McIntosh 1998:22-41; cf. also Finegan
In those multidimensional analyses, stranded prepositions are
among the co‑occurrent linguistic features with positive weight in Dimension 1,
implying that preposition stranding usually co‑occurs with features
representative of involved, oral and interactive communicative situations, and
with those which mark a reduced surface form and a generally fragmented
production of the text, such as that‑deletion, pronominal forms and
contractions, as opposed to linguistic features associated with exact
informational content, like attributive adjectives or nouns (Biber 1988:102,
1995:113-114; Biber and Finegan 1989:490-492). The similar decline in the usage of
preposition stranding across genres in the second subperiod as shown in Table 3
might be considered part of the general stylistic drift in eighteenth-century
prose genres which moved away from the vernacular idiom, presumably in response
to a set of fixed rules imposed in the prescriptive era.
Besides attitudinal motivations like the ones described so
far, there are also functional motivations to be considered for each of the
different genres here examined.
Letters and travel accounts are generally considered informal
genres: they are characteristically involved and intimate in content, and they
report on personal experience usually in first person singular (cf. Biber and
Finegan 1989:496-497, 1997:265; Kytö and Rissanen 1993:9-10;
and Taavitsainen 1997:247-248, among others). In the data documented in the COPCB,
both genres show a similar high incidence of preposition stranding in the first
subperiod (i.e. 20 and 22.5 per 10,000 words, respectively) followed by a
decrease in usage in the second subperiod (i.e. 13.7 and 16.2 per 10,000 words,
respectively). Yet we must note that this decline is not as drastic as in the
other non-personal genres here examined, presumably due to the close link
between the use of stranded prepositions and informal discourse situations.
As far as letters are concerned, in contrast to the free(r)
conversational style of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, epistolary
writing became an ‘art’ in the course of the eighteenth century, consciously
crafted and revised. Letter writers were fully aware that their letters might
not be solely read by the addressee; in fact, they were often read aloud for
entertainment, and some letters, such as Pope’s, were deliberately re-written
for publication. This self‑consciousness might have influenced the language
used, resulting in carefully constructed and polished sentences in which
colloquial idioms would have little or no place (cf. Anderson et al. 1966; Crawford 1985; Guillén
1986; Wright 1993; Fitzmaurice 2000).
For instance, Austin (1994:285-286) has shown that William Clift, of humble
birth, consciously adapted his dialectal and colloquial idiolect to the new
standard forms after moving to London: “it is clear that as soon as [the Clift
family] took up a pen they framed their mind to a formal mode of thinking
… [and] aspired to the standard form of written English of the time” (my
emphasis; see also Austin 1985). Among the texts examined in the COPCB,
the passage by Henrietta Luxborough (1699-1756) below also exemplifies
eighteenth‑century letter writers’ awareness of the issues:
Your remark upon
“Fitzosborne’s Letters” is most just; for letters that are, or even seem to be,
written for the press, never please like others: yet they are, I think,
written in good language, and show, I believe, polite learning and
judgement; and the style would be unexceptionable, I fancy, in essays
(COPCB: Luxborough Letters to Shenstone 1748:0021/060).
travel accounts were likewise aware that their logbooks could also be destined
for publication, as was the case with Captain Cook and his journals (Percy
1996). That may also explain the scanty occurrence of stranded prepositions in
the samples from the COPCB by Robert Wood (1757), Ruins of Balbec,
and by Richard Chandler (1769), Ionian Antiquities, with only two tokens
At the other end of the stylistic continuum, historical texts
are produced in a very formal setting, with features characteristic of written
language and elaborate style, and with primarily informational purposes. The
informal construction preposition stranding is then expectedly infrequent even
in the first subperiod. It records the lowest frequency among the six genres
here examined and remains constant throughout (i.e. 12.5 per 10,000 words).
Thus, it is not surprising to find in both subperiods sample texts of this genre
in which no stranded preposition has been recorded, like, for instance,
Critical History of England by John Oldmixon (1728), and Hermes by
James Harris (1751). The absence of preposition stranding in the latter sample
is somewhat not unexpected since Harris is one of the main representative
figures in defence of universal grammar and analogy with Latin (Leonard
The distribution of preposition stranding in the narrative
fiction, educational treatises and essays documented in the COPCB follows
a remarkably high frequency of stranded
prepositions in the first subperiod (i.e. 30.8, 25.8, and 28.3 per 10,000 words,
respectively), which drastically and consistently drops after the mid-century
(i.e. 11.2, 11.2, and 5.0 per 10,000 words, respectively), even lower than in
historical texts in the same time-span. According to Biber and Finegan (1989:495, 1992:693), these
genres are literate from a situational perspective in that they are produced and
edited carefully and directed towards a large audience; besides, they show a
similar shift in the course of the eighteenth century towards a more
informational, extremely elaborate and markedly abstract style (see also González-Álvarez and Pérez-Guerra 1998). They differ, however,
in their purpose of communication. On the one hand, educational treatises and essays have a
typically informational purpose, sometimes argumentative or persuasive (Biber
Finegan 1988:92,96). If a large number of eighteenth-century normative books
disdained the placing of prepositions at the end of a sentence, it is expected
that stranded prepositions will be avoided in these very same educational treatises,
essays and handbooks, in which they were criticised. Interestingly enough, the
decline in usage is consistently reflected in all the samples documented in the
second subperiod from both genres, and in some of them no stranded preposition
has been attested, as in William Massey’s educational treatise Origin of
Letters (1763), or Henry St. John’s essay Study of History (1752).
On the other hand, imaginative narration generally describes
events and situations for purposes of aesthetic enjoyment, it is consciously
planned and revised, and the dialogue passages – if any–
are not directly interactive (Biber and Finegan 1989:511). In the first subperiod
of the COPCB, among the six genres under examination fiction shows an
outstanding high frequency of preposition stranding, presumably in an attempt to
approach the increasing literate middle-class readership by using the familiar
language. However, after the mid-eighteenth century a more narrative concern
predominates, enriched with aesthetic rationale, thus moving towards a more
literate style and away from the colloquial idiom (Biber and Finegan 1989, 1992;
Pooley 1992:17‑50; González‑Álvarez and Pérez-Guerra
For instance, no stranded preposition has been attested in the sample from
Pompey the Little by Francis Coventry (1752), and only three tokens occur in
Charles Johnstone’s sample from Chrysal (1761).
The analysis of contemporary prose writings in this section
seems to suggest, as pointed out by McIntosh (1998:180‑181), that
eighteenth-century normative grammars, “both cause and symptom of language
consciousness”, did influence writers to make their texts more literate
throughout that century and less vernacular than had been before, one
consequence being the decrease in use of stranded prepositions.
The aim of this
paper was to trace the use and distribution of the syntactic construction
preposition stranding in eighteenth-century written prose as documented in part
B of the Century of Prose Corpus. The century from 1680 to 1780 covered
by this corpus was of particular interest to me because of the linguistic and
literary attitudes with regard to notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English, ‘correct’
and ‘polite’ language. The analysis of the occurrence of stranded prepositions in
six formal and informal genres has shown a drastic decrease in frequency in
the course of the eighteenth century, the reasons being, evidently, the
stigmatisation of the vernacular idiom; as such, the development is part of the
stylistic drift towards a more literate prose style during the eighteenth
In my view, this shift was not so much an expression of a
genuine grammatical change internal to the language, but rather the result of
the chief prescriptive ideals of correctness and politeness. On the basis of the
findings obtained in this study, there seems to be a certain parallelism
in the development of these ideals and the process of
stigmatisation of end-placed prepositions, which may well be viewed as a “change
from above” in Labovian terms (1994:78). The late seventeenth century witnessed
the emergence of the prescriptive era, and it was in the last quarter of the
seventeenth century when attention was drawn to the syntactic phenomenon of
preposition stranding by John Dryden, who first branded the idiom as inelegant.
While the prescriptive ideals of correctness and politeness developed and
strengthened their values and pragmatics during the early eighteenth century,
the occurrence of preposition stranding was still high (see Table 1, 1680‑1740).
The effect of the stigmatisation process appears to have grown stronger after
the mid‑eighteenth century, when a large number of normative grammars,
dictionaries and rhetorical treatises condemned the usage as being improper and
unsuitable in the solemn style and correct language of the polite society. Thus,
it is in the second period of the corpus (1740‑1780) that the drastic decline of
preposition stranding has been consistently attested.
As pointed out in the introduction, due to certain
limitations of the material examined the conclusions presented here are to be
treated as tentative rather than definitive, but it certainly leaves the door
open for further investigation with more corpora and more genres to be examined.
All in all, although attitudes to language have changed and present‑day English
linguistics tends to be more descriptive in its approach, three hundred years after Dryden’s
remark preposition stranding is still among the ten top grammatical features
language users complain about (Crystal 1995:194; cf. also Burchfield
1981:30-31), and present‑day English usage guides still echo the once “cherished
superstition”, giving the advice that “in most circumstances, esp[ecially] in
formal writing, it is desirable to avoid placing a preposition at the end of a
clause or sentence, where it has the appearance of being stranded” (Burchfield
1996:619; cf. also Humphrys 2004:xii,41).
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