May 13, 2006

The geopolitical significance of sentence-final prepositions

At last , a rational argument about why it's a bad idea to end a sentence with a preposition. This long-awaited explanation turned up during a Daily Show bit about an Army essay contest.

Jon Stewart introduces the subject:

It's obviously no secret that the military has been having a difficult time fighting the Iraqi insurgency, but help is on the way. The U.S. Army has recently sponsored a civilian-only essay contest called "countering insurgency", to solicit ideas from the public on how best to defeat the Iraqi insurgency. According to Army journal Military Review, "nothing less than the future of the civilized world might depend on it." Oh, and uh please double space.

After a bit, he brings on John Hodgman, who reads part of one of the submissions, and complains about misuse of the word "literally".

Jon Stewart: All right, John.
Uh, you're reading these counter-insurgency essays for grammar.
John Hodgman: No, and also style and usage. I mean,
you can't fight a War on Terror if you're ending a sentence with a preposition.
Jon Stewart: Wh- Why is that?
John Hodgman: Uh, in the Middle East, that's seen as a sign of weakness.

In addition to critiquing grammar, style, and usage, Hodgman also offers some advice on rhetoric:

Jon Stewart: As to what would be an example of a good essay?
John Hodgman: Well, when it comes to writing an expository essay about counter-insurgent tactics, I'm of the old school.
First you tell them how you're going to kill them; then you kill them; then you tell them how you just killed them.

The contest is for real, and the winner should be announced soon. But Stewart is not quite right in calling this a "civilian-only" contest. The call says:

Anyone conducting serious research on issues related to counterinsurgency is invited to submit papers for consideration. However, papers written by government employees during the course of their government employment are not eligible.

I understand this to mean that active-duty military personnel could enter the contest, as long as the submitted paper was done on their own time.

Hodgman's argument -- or rather a slightly modified version of it -- is the only valid argument for thinking twice about sentence-final prepositions. However, we need to delete the reference to the Middle East: the people who irrationally see sentence-final prepositions as a "sign of weakness" are mostly Americans, I think, even though this particular superstition originates with a catty remark that John Dryden once made about a line in one of Ben Jonson's plays.

[Tip of the hat to John McChesney-Young, who sent a link to the Daily Show piece and supplied the title.]

[If your browser or OS has trouble with the Daily Show link given above, a YouTube link is here.]

Previous Language Log posts on phrase-final prepositions:

An Internet Pilgrim's Guide to stranded prepositions (4/11/2004)
A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put (12/8/2004)
A misattribution no longer to be put up with (12/12/2004)
Better a spectacular blunder than a hint of unseemliness (4/25/2005)
Ending with a preposition (5/17/2005)
More on Canadian French prepositition stranding (5/21/2005)
Who are you writing to? (6/2/2005)
If we look, simply, to the French (6/29/2005)
The French aren't really against (6/30/2005)
Avoidance (7/5/2005)
New Yorker search engine stark staring mad (9/20/2005)
Churchill vs. editorial nonsense (11/27/2005)

[Update: Kathleen Burt emailed

To me, "during the course of their government employment" means "while they are still employed by the government" or to put it another way, a person may not submit a paper while still being a government employee.

I feel that this is the plainest interpretation, and also ( a separate consideration) likeliest to be correct. I base this on having been, for most of my working life, a government employee. What we would have said, in order to convey what you understand by that sentence, is "while they are on the clock," although of course, salaried employees don't actually clock in.

Kathleen's interpretation may very well be true, though in other contexts the {"in the course of their * employment"} clearly does mean something like "while they are on the clock" or "as part of their duties". Thus

Under the NHS indemnity for clinical negligence, NHS bodies agree to meet the cost of claims for negligent harm caused by NHS staff in the course of their NHS employment, including their involvement in clinical trials.
Employees who lose or damage personal property in the course of their County employment may process a claim for reimbursement through the Claims Review Board as provided for in the Kern County Administrative Procedures Manual.

Presumably NHS employees who have car wrecks while shopping are on their own, as are Kern County employees who put their iPods through the laundry. In any case, the wording in the contest restriction doesn't distinguish between military and civilian government employees.

Another question, though: is "government" restricted by context to "U.S. Federal government", even though there is no explicit limitation? ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 13, 2006 06:24 AM