Write on- Oh never ever break a 17th Century Rule!

Photograph of the authors desk, susan sheldon nolen

We were all taught early on in school that you don’t end a sentence with a preposition, but sometimes naughty things happen.

The classic example is…

What did you step on?

We would never write or say–

What on did you step?

Or here  the more pedantic way of writing,

On what did you step?

We just don’t speak that or write that way. English is a tricky little thing, always wanting to trip you up, for there are times when it’s normal and correct to end the sentence with a preposition.

What did you put that there for?

Sounds normal

But

For what did you put that there?

It really changes the meaning of the sentence, not to mention how odd it sounds. But this isn’t a post on the rules of how to use prepositions. I was just wondering, who or how, this rule was created? Certainly not by my old Latin teacher, Miss McCloud, who I believed at one time, knew everything there was to know about language.  I remember trying to be terribly clever the first day of Latin Class. Miss. McCloud, who we thought was a hundred and two, walked into the classroom with a sharp clip clip of her sturdy high heels, her hair in a bun, her grey skirt and snow white blouse, equally crisp. She stood with her ruler in hand and asked everyone in the class, why we had chosen her class over the Greek. Well, what else could I chirp up with other than, Miss it’s all Greek to me.  The chill in the room came directly from her eyes. A humourist, I see, she remarked very slowly.  She then proceeded to write in Latin what I had said, and there started the class.  However it was a literary critic and poet of the 17th century came up with the rule. Speech and writing in 1611 was apparently rife with sentences ending in prepositions.

John Dryden Photo Credit Wikipedia

John Dryden Photo Credit Wikipedia

It was just what was done, but Dryden who was a poet, and a literary critic was reading a play by Ben Jonson, and this line for some reason he never clarified, made him rise up in protest.

The Bodies that those souls were frighten from.

Dryden’s pen, dipped with black ink, scrawled across the page, leaving us with these words;

“ The Preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observed in my own writings.’

Ben Jonson Photo Credit Wikipedia

Ben Jonson Photo Credit Wikipedia

So the power of a literary critic made other writers take note and soon it became a rule passed down the ages to my old Latin teacher, who would sternly peer over her glasses, ruler in hands, saying, “One never ever ends a sentence in a preposition.”  One never ever argues with Miss McCloud!

About susan sheldon nolen

It’s rare to catch me without coffee, a form of camera, or my beloved wire fox terriers. I love the history, the art, and it’s a massive part of my life, as I either paint, write, or get interrupted by my dogs, reminding me of the real world. I hope you enjoy your time here. It’s such a privilege to have readers.
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2 Responses to Write on- Oh never ever break a 17th Century Rule!

  1. I sometimes buck this rule, Susan, if it is true to the voice of the character. Or to my own voice.

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