August 25, 2007

Prepositional anxiety and Voldemort's wand

It seems that He Who Must Not Be Named feels that prepositions are The Part Of Speech That Must Not Occur In A Relative Clause. At least, that would explain why, on p. 655 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort says: "My wand of yew did everything of which I asked it, Severus, except to kill Harry Potter. " 

Meg Wilson, who sent this in, added "Since I'm not a linguist, I'd be interested to see a Language Log analysis of exactly what is so horrible about this sentence."

This horrible sentence is the sad result of more than three centuries of superstitious dread. In 1672, John Dryden objected to the lines

The mawes, and dens of beasts could not receiue
The bodies, that those soules were frighted from;

That's the passage from Ben Jonson's Catiline that Dryden cited in arguing that the poets of earlier generations, like Jonson and Shakespeare, were inferior to himself, due to their failure to obey various grammatical "rules" that he invented. (For the details, see "An internet pilgrim's guide to standed prepositions", "Hot Dryden-on-Jonson Action", and "Forgive me, awful Poet".)

Dryden was concerned with cases where a relative pronoun is the object of a preposition, and he promoted the idea of putting the preposition next to the relative pronoun rather than in its basic location in the clause (e.g. "the women to which I have spoken" rather than "the women (that/which) I have spoken to"). Some grammatically-naive people have generalized this preference into a global aversion to prepositions at the end of any clause at all -- even intransitive prepositions like "I was fed up". But Voldemort's sentence shows that the superstition has been escalated to a new level.

In case it's not obvious to you, here's what's going on. Simplifying it a bit, Voldemort's sentence, rendered in Heavy English with square brackets marking the relative clause, is something like:

my wand did everything [ such that I asked that thing of it ]

The normal way to render this in Standard English would be one of these:

my wand did everything [ which I asked * of it ]
my wand did everything [ that I asked * of it ]
my wand did everything [ __ I asked * of it ]

where '*' marks the canonical location of the (variable corresponding to the) relativized noun phrase.

But apparently that inoffensive little of -- even though it has no connection to the relative pronoun, and is just sitting peacefully next to its proper object "it" -- frightened J.K. Rowling, who decided to sweep it up and stick it next to which in the complementizer position. Or perhaps it was some anonymous copy editor who performed this little grammatical incorrection.

Then again, Rowling may have consciously placed a hyperconnection in Voldemort's mouth, in order to tell us something about his character. That would be a more charitable interpretation.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 25, 2007 11:48 AM