July 07, 2005

Get 'em while they're young

Starting in 1987, Ruth Heller published a series of little books for young readers, under the series title  World of Language.  The books, delightfully illustrated by Heller, introduce topics in English grammar in brief, rhyming texts.  Of course, the content is pretty much a grade-school version of high school and college manuals.

Here's Heller on Dryden's Rule (No Stranded Prepositions), from Behind the mask: A book about prepositions (Grosset & Dunlap hardback 1991, PaperStar paperback 1998), in the book's final bit of text:

PREPOSITIONS, in this modern day
at the end of
a sentence
are sometimes okay.
So it isn't an error ... it isn't a sin
to say,
"It's the room that I was playing
But those who are graced
impeccable taste
will insist upon saying,
"It is the room in which I was playing."

Ah, it's like CliffsNotes, only a lot cuter (and with MUCH better illustrations): the presupposition that stranded prepositions used to be absolutely banned but now can be used if you know what you're doing; the unclarity about what makes for a stranded preposition (which leads the naive and the smart-assed to think that they can fix things by adding something, like an adverbial, after the stranded preposition); the assertion that fronted prepositions are more felicitous than stranded ones.

The eagle-eyed reader will have noted that upon is not highlighted in Heller's text.  I'm entirely sure this isn't something she just overlooked. 

Back at the very beginning the kids are told, "Of PREPOSITIONS have no fear.  They help to make directions clear."  There follows a series of examples suggesting that what prepositions are for is to indicate location and direction of motion; Heller is implicitly defining prepositions by their semantics.  Eventually, she explains: "PREPOSITIONS tell you where.  They tell you how.  And when."  So upon in upon saying... doesn't count; it doesn't denote spatial location/direction, manner, or temporal location.  (Neither does the infinitive marker to in to say, though if you look it up in most dictionaries you'll find it categorized as a preposition, for historical reasons. On the other hand, the metaphorical motion in "said the spider to the fly" counts.  Go figure.)

But what of the syntax?  On the syntax Heller is pretty cagey.  She tries to convey the distinction between preposition and particle by explaining, about prepositions, "They're never alone.  They're always in phrases."  (This excludes inside, in, and around in her example "Please step inside, come in, and look around."  She doesn't rise to cases like "The staff sent up a sandwich.")  And she foreshadows Dryden's Rule early on, by allowing that occasionally prepositions don't precede their objects: "They almost always start the phrase ..." except that on occasion "at the very end they're found."  (Disastrously, to illustrate her point, she uses "The World Around" as a poetic alternative to "Around the World".)

As usual, I'm baffled as to what students -- in this case, people in the 8-12 age range -- make of any of this.

After the conceptual underpinnings of the first few pages, she moves on to specific cases and tells the kids what to do, flat out (here I abandon the bright blue highlighting):
    - into for entering, in for location;
    - be angry with a person, at a thing;
    - between for two, among for more than two;
    - different from, not different than;
    - where, not where... at or where... to;
    - near, not near to; off, not off of.

And then come a few pages about "phrasal prepositions" (in front of, etc.), after which we reach the heights of Dryden's Rule, and release.

There are also three mazes, and a "which one of these is different from the others?" puzzle.

This is a lot to cover in a book that has only 32 pages with words on them, and then mostly only a few words, sometimes just one or two.  It's a picture book, after all.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 7, 2005 04:53 PM