June 21, 2005

The CliffsNotes version

cliffsnotes I suppose it's foolish to expect good advice from CliffsNotes, a series that isn't willing to supply the appropriate apostrophe in its own name -- there was a real Cliff, founder Cliff Hillegass (1918-2001) -- but on stranded prepositions CliffsQuickReview (an antipathy to apostrophes and spacing between words seems to be widespread in this division of Wiley Publishing) Writing: Grammar, Usage, and Style (by Jean Eggenshwiler & Emily Dotson Briggs, 2001) achieves a stunning amalgam of inaccuracy and unhelpfulness.  Not to mention poor writing.

The advice, in toto (p. 51):

Ending a sentence with a preposition can cause problems.  The rule that a sentence should never end with a preposition is no longer strictly enforced.  Still, many writers avoid ending sentences with prepositions, which is generally a good idea.  But use your own judgment.  If you feel ending with a preposition makes a particular sentence more natural, do so and don't worry about it.

Ok, five sentences, four of them with some variant of "end (a sentence) with a preposition" in them.  I'm sorry, that's just too many repetitions.  It's like ringing a damn bell again and again.  But even that amount of repetition isn't enough to smooth the transition from the first sentence to the second.  Then there's the which clause in the third sentence: is it generally a good idea, in the writers' view, to end sentences with prepositions, or to avoid ending sentences with prepositions?  Clearly, they intend the latter interpretation, but as it stands the sentence is an example of the sort of indefinite-antecedent which they warn about elsewhere in the manual.

So much for the form of the advice.  The content is even worse. 

Sentence one: I know of no evidence that stranding prepositions causes "problems" in anybody's writing; I've seen no examples where stranding a preposition has produced difficulties in interpretation, and I'll bet Eggenschwiler & Biggs have no such examples from real life.  (Of course, you can invent examples with ungrammatical strandings in them, but if people aren't inclined to strand in these situations they don't need advice on where to put their prepositions.)  In real life, awkward or even ungrammatical FRONTINGS do occur, though, as an unfortunate consequence of Dryden's Rule, to which I now turn.  Ok, but not before I give an example of a really bad fronting, from LaTeX documentation (thanks to Geoff Pullum, who sent me this gem on 28 August 2002):

The graphics backend driver now knows with what you are TeXing the document, so it can go out and look for the file with an admissible extension...

Sentence two states Dryden's Rule (in a common, but inadequate, formulation) and presupposes that it used to be "strictly enforced", whatever that means.  This is just false.  English, whether spoken or written, has never obeyed Dryden's Rule.  There has been no lowering of standards, no falling away from some golden age of order and regulation in the world of prepositions.

Sentence three maintains that "many writers avoid ending sentences with prepositions", a claim that is probably also false.  I doubt that the number of non-stranding writers is very high, and I'm sure they don't consistently avoid stranding.  Just look at actual writing.

And then we get the advice: Dryden's Rule is generally a good thing, but you should do whatever feels right to you.  This is monumentally unhelpful.  If I find that I am about to strand a preposition in my writing, well, then, it felt natural to me, so why should I consider rewriting my sentence so as to front the preposition?  As far as I can see, the only effect of this advice is to mess with students' minds by inducing Preposition Anxiety.  There's enough of that going around already.

The CliffsNotes volumes are supposed to function as guides to "the basics" (that's what Hillegass's "Note to the Reader", inside the front cover of each book, says).  They are a souped-up version of the Classic Comics/Classics Illustrated volumes that they drove out of business.  (I have an enormous fondness for these comics.  But of course as guides to literature they were hopeless, since they translated prose into a very different, largely visual, medium and drastically chopped plot lines and character development to fit everything into a 64-page format.  Hmm... Now I'm trying to imagine the Classics Illustrated version of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.)  Souped-up in the sense that they present themselves as both accurate and useful.  (The most that the Classics Illustrated people said for their comics was that they might encourage kids to read the original literature.  I was once, and only once, led to an original in this fashion: W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions.  It hadn't occurred to me that the prose might be even more overheated than the comic book.  It was not a good date.)

I have no idea how the other CliffsQuickReview volumes measure up on the accuracy and usefulness scales, but I have to say that, on the basis of this one, I'm glad there's no Linguistics volume.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 21, 2005 02:09 PM