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When I use verbs with prepositions like "to know of" in a subordinate clause like

Examples (the 1st is wrong [genitive construction], the 2nd doesn't make sense but it's about grammar):

  • "I wonder if I should go visit the people I left so suddenly in that one town the name I never knew of."
  • "I wonder if I should go visit the people I left so suddenly in that one town I never knew of."

Is that correct English ? When can I know that I have to use them close together or separate them ?

(Sorry, I'm not sure about the technical terms. English is not my native language.)

Thanks!

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, user66974, tchrist, FumbleFingers, Zairja Sep 3 '14 at 15:58

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  • No, that wouldn't be a valid way of phrasing what you want to say. The phrasal verb to know of X means to be aware of X's existence, which is not usually the same as to know X (to know exactly what X actually is). You could use ...in that one town I never knew the name of, or ...in that one town of which I never knew the name (where of validly links "name" to "town", rather than being part of a phrasal verb. – FumbleFingers Aug 30 '14 at 12:44
  • Ah wait, my example is wrong. I'm using to know and not to know of, right ? – Divergent Aug 30 '14 at 12:52
  • The original (now changed) version was indeed wrong because it doesn't make much sense to say you know of someone/something's name (either you know the actual name or you don't; it's almost meaningless to say you're aware of the fact that the town has a name, but you don't know what it is). But your revised version is equally nonsensical - how could you possibly have left the town and its people without knowing of [the existence of] the town in the first place? – FumbleFingers Aug 30 '14 at 13:02
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    I think this question is too basic for ELU, and should be on English Language Learners – FumbleFingers Aug 30 '14 at 13:04
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    In colloquial American English, it'd be in that town that I never knew the name of, so quite a bit more than a preposition can get stranded through relative-extraction. The relative pronoun originated there, but it departed for the front, where it was deleted, and buried with full grammatical honours in the Tomb of the Unknown Pronoun. It leaves behind a gap after of. – John Lawler Aug 30 '14 at 14:45
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The Original Poster's example is:

  • I wonder if I should go visit the people I left so suddenly in that one town I never knew of*?

Although the sentence is perfectly grammatical, a more natural wording for a native speaker might be something like:

  • Should I go and visit the people I left in that town I never knew the name of?

The Original Poster's question is actually about when the object of a verb + preposition combination must follow the verb + preposition, and when it can be separated from it. Notice that in the Original Poster's example, the apparent object of the verb and preposition combination precedes the verb:

  • ...a town I never knew of.

The structure

Let's have a look at the structure of the verb phrase in a normal subordinate clause:

  • I said that I never knew of that town.

Here the verb knew takes as it's complement a Preposition Phrase headed by the preposition of. In other words the complement of knew is the phrase of that town:

  • [[knew] [of that town]]

Within the Preposition Phrase itself, the preposition of is taking the Noun Phrase that town as its own complement.

The reason that a town precedes I never knew of in the Original Poster's example is that a town is not the object of the preposition of here. Neither is it functioning as an object of a verb plus preposition combination. Quite the reverse in fact. The string a town I never knew of is actually a Noun Phrase.

The phrase is, more specifically, a noun modified by a relative clause. A fuller version of the phrase could be either of the following:

  • a town which I never knew the name of.
  • a town that I never knew the name of.

Here the relative clause which I never knew of is modifying the noun town. The structure of the phrase could be represented thus:

  • [a] [town which I never knew of].

The relative clause is fronted by the relative pronoun which. Which is actually the object of the preposition of. Because it is functioning as a relative pronoun it moves to the front of the clause. However because which is not a subject in the clause, but, in this case, the object of a preposition, we are allowed to omit it from the sentence, as in the OP's example.

Preposition stranding

Old fashioned prescriptive grammarians might once have argued that leaving the preposition stranded at the end of the sentence like this without a following object was ungrammatical. They might have given the following as a better version of the phrase:

  • a town of which I never knew.

In this type of construction, the whole preposition phrase moves to the front of the sentence. This means that the preposition appears before its object as in a normal sentence. Whilst this is perfectly grammatical, it is of course complete nonsense that we cannot leave the preposition stranded at the end of the clause, and most good writers do so, often. Especially in the OP's rather informal sentence, it is far better style to leaver the preposition at the end of the relative clause than move it to the front. One important reason why is that it allows the pronoun which to be dropped from the sentence, which in informal speech and writing is usually preferable. This is not possible if the preposition is fronted:

  • a town of I never knew. * (wrong)

The other reason is that both the versions with which and that read very clunkily. The stranded preposition version is by far the least offensive to ones natural ear.

The alternative example

The same sort of principles would apply to:

  • a town I never knew the name of.

Only, here, the structure of the original verb phrase is quite different. A canonical version of the clause would be:

  • I never knew the name of that town.

In this example the verb knew is taking as it's direct object the Noun Phrase the name of that town. This is a genitive construction where the noun name is modified by the Preposition Phrase of that town. This Preposition Phrase consists of the preposition 'of and its complement that town. Again, in a relative clause, the element which representing town in the clause would be omissible. This time, one option would be to move the whole NP containing the source of the relative word to the front of the clause:

  • that town the name of which I never knew.

Alternatively, we could use the relative pronoun whose in a similar construction:

  • that town whose name I never knew.

As in the OP's original example, the versions without which or that and also without whose are infinitely better.

Conclusion

In short, when the object of a preposition is relativised and moves to the front of a relative clause, it is perfectly acceptable to leave the preposition at the end of the clause. In normal sentences however, the object of the preposition usually appears directly after it.

Hope this helps

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The problems are not with grammar, but with word choice. For example:

rather than:

"town I never knew of"

consider:

"town I never knew about before."

You also have a choice of:

  1. "go visit"
  2. "go to visit"
  3. "visit"

I would pick [3]

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