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In the 1950s we were strongly discouraged from placing prepositions at the end of sentences, and also from using split infinitives. Is this considered important now?

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marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Janus Bahs Jacquet, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, tchrist, choster Oct 14 '13 at 6:28

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Why, I ask with incredulity, has someone voted this down? and left no comment. Is this not important? If you want to delight your readers with wonderful English prose, this is a question which needs your thought and attention. –  WS2 Oct 13 '13 at 21:36
    
I can only guess, as the downvote wasn't mine, but some of our fellow ELU enthusiasts seem to bristle at questions of a prescriptive nature. I believe some of the answers and comments here illustrate the point effectively. –  Lumberjack Oct 13 '13 at 21:42
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Today on the BBC, the chief vexillologist of the UK weighed in on the long-standing controversy between people who call the UK's flag the "Union Jack" and people who call it the "Union Flag". The official position? Get over it - there never was a rule until the Victorians (who had to have rules about everything) decided to make one. Many language nitpicks (such as dangling prepositions and split infinitives) came out of the same misguided fussiness, and should also be ditched. If obeying the "rule" makes your writing awkward or unclear, forget the rule! –  MT_Head Oct 13 '13 at 22:16
    
@MT_Head I didn't see it, but I do hope they had the flag the right way up. My friend went into a shop in Germany to ask if he could be of any help in their distress. The shop people didn't realise they were flying the Union Jack/Flag, among many other flags, the wrong way up - a signal of 'in distress'. –  WS2 Oct 13 '13 at 22:24
    
@WS2 - It was "Broadcasting House" on Radio 4, so I didn't actually "see" it either... –  MT_Head Oct 13 '13 at 22:25
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5 Answers 5

It depends who is doing the considering. Almost all academic linguists recognise that these "rules" have no historical authority but were arbitrarily invented a couple of hundred years ago. Most modern style-guides have abandoned the one about prepositions, and are prepared to allow split infinitives if the alternative would be awkward or ambiguous.

But you will certainly find curmudgeons about who insist on these "rules"; and of course if any such curmudgeon encounters your prose which doesn't follow their cherished rules, they will judge you as inferior.

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+1 I totally agree with Colin, with two quibbles: (1) 'English grammarians' instead of 'academic linguists'; (2) peevers (language curmudgeons, as described) may be safely ignored, since they illustrate their ignorance by their peeve. –  John Lawler Oct 13 '13 at 22:18
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However, it would be incorrect to say that stranded prepositions and split infinitives don't matter any longer. They never did matter, as a matter of grammar, and they still don't matter. At all. –  John Lawler Oct 13 '13 at 22:22
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@WS2, you believe incorrectly. These ‘rules’ were applied to English for the sole reason that they exist in French and Latin. They have nothing to do with English and never had. ‘To boldly go’ is only ugly to you because that’s what you were taught it was. Dozens of great 18th century writers whose writings only a fool would dismiss with a “Yuk” split their infinitives quite freely. And sometimes, there simply is no alternative: “The population is expected to more than double” cannot be ‘fixed’ by un splitting the infinitive. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 13 '13 at 22:41
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@WS2: There are times when ending a sentence with a preposition seems unavoidable. How would you rewrite Shakespeare's sentence "I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at" so the sentence doesn't end with a preposition? "I will wear my heart upon my sleeve so that daws can peck at it"? Much clunkier. Yuck! –  Peter Shor Oct 13 '13 at 22:59
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@PeterShor, they've been around since late Middle English, so I wouldn't call them recent. True, they went out of fashion, apparently, for quite a long time—but then they came back with a vengeance in the 1700s, and have been in frequent use ever since. They were previously more colloquial, but I don't think that really applies anymore—people either use them indiscriminately these days, or they continue to believe the prescriptivist nonsense they were fed by their grammar school teachers and don't use them at all. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 13 '13 at 23:03
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English has pre-positions ("We looked at the books") and post-positions (The books we looked at"). Why forbid the second ones ?

As for split infinitive, "Writers should learn to not split infinitives".

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I must say, that's an interesting way to look at it. +1 for creativity. –  John Lawler Oct 13 '13 at 23:07
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Though this (paragraph 1) is a classic example of begging the question (= assuming the answer you want in a sneakily-disguised premise). Not that I'm not arguing with the answer here. Another point: this is not the usual usage of 'postposition' ('A word that shows the relation of a noun or pronoun to some other word/s in a sentence, similar in function to a preposition, but [immediately] following rather than preceding the object: these facts notwithstanding). This example would rather be described as a case of preposition stranding –  Edwin Ashworth Oct 14 '13 at 11:33
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It depends on how formal you want to be. If you're writing a speech for a large educated group - let's say college professors at a conference - then you'd follow both rules.

The infinitive thing is a carryover from Latin, in which the infinitive is a single word ("amare", to love). In Latin, you couldn't split it if you wanted to. When things started to be translated from Latin, they noticed that you always wrote "to be" for "esse" (for eample), and somebody decided that it would be bad form to write put anything between the "to" and the verb.

As it's a rule that no longer makes sense, we ignore it.

As for the ending preposition, Winston Churchill was one of the finest writers in modern England. When someone tried to correct him - ending a sentence with a preposition - he replied

"This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put."

(Versions of that story vary.)

Again, I think it comes from Latin, where the preposition is always in front of the phrase.

English is, however, a living language. That's why we have so many words - we borrow as needed from other languages.

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Interesting that you should say Churchill was 'one of the finest writers in modern England' Well he did have a pithy way with words, having begun as a journalist. But not to be mentioned with our finest writers of his period, such as D.H.Lawrence, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and William Golding. But if you ever want an example of how to write a letter of condolence, read his to Eleanor Roosevelt on the death of FDR. It is just a few lines long but says absolutely everything. –  WS2 Oct 14 '13 at 7:54
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Split infinitives and terminal prepositions have a tendency to add complexity and ambiguity to a sentence, or help reduce them.

Your current attitude should be - does their use in a particular situation increase or decrease comprehension?

For example I encountered this rather confusing advertising phrase (for a telecom product) in Singapore many years ago.

Which line would you rather be at the end of?

It could be rewritten as

At which end of a line would you rather be?

Perhaps, to emphasize differentiation of one product line from another

At the end of which line would you rather be?

However, this phrase with a terminal preposition,

Whom do you think I should be working for?

is more comprehensible than one without,

For whom do you think I should be working?

Whilst (does anyone still use the word "whilst"?),

For Whom the Bells Toll

sounds much better than

Whom the Bells Toll For

These sound so much more grammatically refreshing,

Would you like me to set your equipment up before your demo tomorrow.
Remember to pick the groceries up from the shop this evening.

But, these sound more comprehensible and get the job done.

Would you like me to set up your equipment before your demo tomorrow.
Remember to pick up the groceries from the shop this evening.

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I much prefer 'For whom do you think I should be working?' and others. My English teacher, over half a century ago used to say,'Beware of trailing prepositions, up with which I shall not put'. –  WS2 Oct 13 '13 at 22:44
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The last two examples deal with the preposition’s syntactic status (as part of a phrasal verb construction or not); they are not really relevant to this question. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 13 '13 at 22:44
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@WS2, hopefully, as he did so, you all realised that that sentence is completely ungrammatical? –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 13 '13 at 22:46
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It's an option, not a political party or a corporation. Must one give "equal amount of thought" to every loony idea one comes across? That seems a depressingly egalitarian way to allocate thought modules. –  John Lawler Oct 13 '13 at 23:11
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Hemingway's title "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is a quotation, so I don't think euphony enters the question there. –  StoneyB Oct 14 '13 at 3:11
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Yes, they matter. Sometimes. And sometimes they don't.

The anti-prescriptivists say that such rules are arbitrary, nothing to with English(!), and should be ignored. While doing so they obey a whole load of other rules, so this position doesn't stand up logically: it is cherry-picking which rules are prescriptive and which are not.

The prescriptivists say that all rules should be obeyed regardless, and failure to do so is dumbing down the language, a failure of education, etc. They usually believe that the Golden Age of Grammar was when they were in school. This too doesn't stand up logically as they have to prove that their set of rules is correct and, for example, 17th century rules are not.

Somebody, somewhere, said something like "rules are for the adherence of the ignorant and the guidance of the wise". Maybe that should be applied here.

The 'arbitrary' rules that 'have nothing to do with English' were codified by Englishman who were very well educated and knew more about the language than those who currently whine about them. They are there for a reason, and to arbitrarily dismiss them makes no sense. On the other hand, there is no reason why those who understand the purpose of the rules should not break them.

"To boldly go", for example, is harmless enough and improves the prosody, at least to my ear. "To go boldly" as prescriptivists would insist is comparatively clunky, and as the purpose of not splitting infinitives is to keep the to- and its verb together (not a bad idea) splitting with a single short word doesn't really violate that.

Compare with "to boldly with phasers set to stun, transporter at the ready, and Bones hanging around with his tricorder, go" is almost unintelligible but presumably okay to those who say splitting infinitives is awesome.

In short, the rules themselves are not wrong. The issue is people who either apply them religiously, or on the other extreme think they should be ignored completely.

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Even the prescriptivists do not say we should follow the rules about shall and will, about you and thou, and about the present subjunctive. Language changes, and there is nothing wrong with arbitrarily dismissing rules that no longer have relevance. The rule about the split infinitive is one of these; it was introduced in the 19th century, when split infinitives were becoming popular again after several hundred years of being out of use (or more likely, being used only by regional dialects). –  Peter Shor Oct 14 '13 at 11:44
    
The present subjunctive is alive and kicking in formal writing, and so is the will/shall distinction - especially in British legalese. You are making the mistake of thinking that what happens in America - where the will/shall distinction has never been strong - must be happening all over the world. The split infinitive being no longer relevant is your personal opinion, not a fact, which is precisely why the anti-prescriptivist position has no logical basis. The decision of what is relevant and what isn't is completely arbitrary. –  Roaring Fish Oct 14 '13 at 17:08
    
If the present subjunctive be alive and kicking, then I am very unobservant, since I never see it anywhere. –  Peter Shor Oct 20 '13 at 21:17
    
I can only conclude that you don't read much formal writing. –  Roaring Fish Oct 21 '13 at 8:58
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