Thursday, October 29, 2015

Undangling Your Prepositions

Image result for university library sign

A student stops a professor on the university campus.
Student:  Hey, professor, where’s the library at?
Professor:  Never, never, never end a sentence with a preposition.
Student:  OK.  Where’s the library at, asshole?

The professor in the joke is wrong.
The problem is not the "at" ending the sentence.  "At" is simply unnecessary.  "Where's the library?" is sufficient.

Sometimes keeping a dangling preposition at the end of a sentence is better than removing it.  For example:  "This is the kind of thing up with which I will not put" is just silly.

  • This blog is about when getting rid of the dangle is recommended.

The dangling preposition is a problem in my students' essays - especially if there are a lot of them.  One essay had all these sentences:

  • Listening to others is a skill I would like to improve on.
  • Dealing with indirect people is another important communication skill I would like to become more proficient in.
  • Speaking confidently in public settings is something I would like to become better at.
  • I wrote down a few key points that I wanted to touch on.
  • My husband is someone I would like to be closer to.

Looking at the sentences above, you can see that each preposition has an object:

  • improve on listening
  • proficient in dealing with indirect people
  • better at speaking confidently
  • touch on a few points
  • closer to my husband

Some grammarists say the object should always follow the preposition that introduces it.

I suspect "always" is too restrictive, but writers should always be aware that the preposition at the end of a clause creates -- an unfinished, dangly, wordy feel to the sentences, especially when there are several in one essay.  

Grammatically speaking, the prepositions should be followed by a noun rather than preceded by one.  For succinct writing, I generally look at my dangling prepositions and see if I can use a different word or change the sentence structure.
Look at all the tiresome unnecessary words you can eliminate:

  • I would like to improve on my listening skills.  (-3)
  • I would like to become more proficient in dealing with indirect people.  (-5)
As for ending a question with a preposition:

I prefer the wording of the questions above to the unreadable "To whom should I give this?"  or "From where did this come?"  What do you think?

  1. Where are you going?
  2. Who wants this?
  3. Seems fine as it is.
  4. Seems fine.
  5. Who is going with you?
  6. Which container is it in? Still dangling but seems fine.

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