May 01, 2007

Hot Dryden-on-Jonson action

The modern neurosis about clause-final prepositions is still potent, despite being disavowed by even the crankiest usage authorities of the past century. I got a question about it just last week, from a student who wrote in for help in dealing with a friend who "insists that it is always improper to end a clause with a preposition". As MWCDEU explains,

...recent commentators -- at least since Fowler 1926 -- are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety. Fowler terms the idea a "cherished superstition." [...] So if everyone who is in the know agrees, there's no problem, right?


Thank you for your reply to my questions but I find it extremely difficult to trust an opinion on grammar prepared by someone who ends a sentence with a preposition.

This is part of a letter received by one of our editors who had answered some questions for the writers. Members of the never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition school are still with us and are not reluctant to make themselves known...

How did this curious cult of incorrection get started?

MWCDEU tracks it back to 1672 and John Dryden's "Defense of the Epilogue":

The italic line is from Jonson's Catiline (1611); the comment on it is Dryden's:

The bodies that those souls were frighted from.
The Preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observ'd in my own writings.

In writing about this a few years ago ( "An Internet Pilgrim's Guide to Stranded Prepositions", 4/11/2004), I observed:

It's a shame that Jonson had been dead for 35 years at the time, since he would otherwise have challenged Dryden to a duel, and saved subsequent generations a lot of grief.

This suggestion was an entirely serious one. An online biographical sketch tells us that around 1590,

Jonson enlisted with the English supporters of the Protestant Hollanders who were defending their religious and political liberties against Catholicism and Spanish rule. The fiery young poet proved to be as formidable with the sword as he was with the pen. In one particular act of bravado, he advanced before the English volunteers, challenged a Spaniard to single combat, slew him, and then--in classic Homeric tradition--stripped the corpse of its armor.

And in 1598,

Jonson fell into a quarrel with the actor Gabriel Spencer and, in a duel, killed the man, though his blade was ten inches shorter than Spencer's. He was imprisoned and very nearly put to death. At the last moment, he was granted a reprieve and released, but his property was confiscated, and he was branded on the thumb. His release was celebrated by the performance of his new play Every Man Out of His Humour.

I located the context of Jonson's use of phrase-final from, in a passage describing the slaughter in Rome at the end of the civil war in 82 B.C.:

                    The rugged Charon fainted,
And ask'd a nauy, rather then a boate,
To ferry ouer the sad world that came:
The mawes, and dens of beasts could not receiue

The bodies, that those soules were frighted from;
And e'en the graues were fild with men, yet liuing,
Whose flight, and feare had mix'd them, with the dead.

This seems as unobjectionable as tens of thousands of similar examples from great writers over the years. MCDEU quotes 25 or so, from John Bunyan to E.L. Doctorow, via Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Byron, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, James Thurber and Robert Frost.

It's not clear to me that anyone has ever even tried to tell a coherent story -- much less make a cogent argument -- about the alleged flaws of sentence-final prepositions. In 1762, Bishop Lowth could do no better than this feeble assertion, subverted (on purpose?) by its own first sentence:

This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to: it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing: but the placing of the preposition before the relative, is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.

Still, I've held out hope that Dryden might have had something coherent to say about this stylistic preference in his original 1672 discussion. I've been able to maintain this hope, against the odds, because I've never taken the trouble to locate a copy of "Defense of the Epilogue".

But last night, Geoff Pullum forwarded to me a note from Dan Mack, under the Subject heading "Dryden on Jonson action", informing us that Dryden's complete works are now available on line from Google Books, and supplying a link to the crucial passage.

What a spectacular disappointment!

Dryden is making an argument that he is a better poet and playwright than Jonson, Fletcher and Shakespeare were. The form of this argument is "that the language, wit, and conversation of our age, are improved and refined above the last; and then it will not be difficult to infer, that our plays have received some part of those advantages."

He frames the argment like this:

... these absurdities, which those poets committed, may more properly be called the age's fault than theirs. For, besides the want of education and learning, (which was their particular unhappiness,) they wanted the benefit of converse [...] Their audiences knew no better; and therefore were satisfied with what they brought. Those who call theirs the Golden Age of Poetry, have only this reason for it, that they were then content with acorns, before they knew the use of bread ...

In order to advance this view of Ben Jonson, he writes that

I cast my eyes but by chance on Catiline; and in the last three or four pages, found enough to conclude that Jonson writ not correctly.

Dryden then briefly cites a dozen passages from Catiline where he claims to have found errors. The "frighted from" line is one of them; and what he has to say about it is nothing more than what MWCDEU quoted:

At the end of his laundry list of Jonson's alleged mistakes, Dryden writes:

And what correctness, after this, can be expected from Shakspeare or from Fletcher, who wanted that learning and care which Jonson had?

I'm not generally in favor of settling intellectual arguments with swordfights, but in this case, I might make an exception.

[The footnote (numbered 6) was apparently supplied by Edmond Malone, the editor of this 1800 edition of The Critical and Miscellaneous Prose Works of John Dryden, and reads "He [i.e. Dryden] accordingly, on a revision, corrected this inaccuracy in every sentence of his Essay on Dramatick Poesy, in which it occurred."]

[Nuria Yáñez-Bouza, who is about to submit her PhD thesis on the history of preposition stranding in the prescriptive (grammatical) tradition, at the University of Manchester (in the UK), wrote:

Although Dryden is well-known for his critique of end-placed prepositions, he was not the first writer to have addressed the 'correction' of end-placed prepositions in the 17thc.

Dryden's explicit critique on Jonson's usage dates from 1672; there is also some evidence of implicit (or latent) criticism in (at least) one early work of his.

Edmund Malone's remark on Dryden's corrections of the Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668/1684) is not completely accurate; a few stranded prepositions escaped Dryden's thorough revision. Besides, Dryden corrected/revised stranded prepositions in other works too.

And there are many grammarians (and rhetoricians!) in the eighteenth century who criticised preposition stranding apart from Robert Lowth, the most famous one.

I'll look forward with interest to reading her thesis. Meanwhile, a quick web search discloses that she has already published "Prescriptivism and preposition stranding in eighteenth-century prose", Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics, 7, 2007.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 1, 2007 06:13 AM