Prepositions (was: However. . . LONG! was RE: because/since)

Subject: Prepositions (was: However. . . LONG! was RE: because/since)
From: Joanna Sheldon <cjs10 -at- CORNELL -dot- EDU>
Date: Sun, 10 Sep 1995 06:41:01 -0400

Nathan writes:

>Such misuses of propositions drive me crazy, especially when they are easily
>avoidable. My dictionary *excuses* such misuse with the explanation that it
>is not easily avoidable. Bull!! Here is the example from my dictionary,
>that is supposedly "hard to avoid".

>"What did you do it for?"

>This is hard to avoid??? Give me a break!! What's wrong with:

>"Why did you do it?"

>It is sharper and much more to the point. The dictionary's example leads the
>reader to wonder "for......."


I challenge you to find one person who would be left wondering what the
object of the preposition 'for' is, if asked: "What did you do it for?"

One person.

It is not a misuse of the preposition. It is an Olde Englishe Construction,
one that grammarians decided they didn't like. Not neat enough. Not Latin
enough. Whatever.

"Why did you do it?" works well as either a Latin or an English
construction. "What did you do it for?" is as Anglo-Saxon as it gets. The
French were an occupying force for a good, long time -- and since Latin had
grammarians and English didn't, the rules of Latin grammar were applied to
English . (And of course, a lot of FrancoLatin constructions got
incorporated into English, it was inevitable -- including things like "It's
me" in answer to the question: "Who is it?" -- "C'est moi." That's a
French peculiarity, BTW, not a Latin one... don't want anyone jumping on me
for that.) The word 'preposition' is from 'prae' (before) 'positio'
position. It works, in Latin.

To go back to your questions. The second has its own rhythm and its own
emphasis. Note that it asks "what?", not "why?" -- there's a beautiful and
subtle difference, even though, if you were to translate the two into a
foreign language, you'd probably have to say the meaning was the same (it's
exactly such subtleties that get lost in translation).

The language is richer for having two strong traditions to draw from.
English is special, that way.

-- Joanna

P.S. I'll quote Henry Fowler again (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage):

"It is a cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the
incurable English instinct for putting them late ('They are the fittest
timber to make great politics of' said Bacon; & 'What are you hitting me
for?' says the modern schoolboy), be kept true to their name & placed before
the word they govern. [...] [T]he natural inference in this matter would
be: you cannot put a preposition (roughly speaking) later than its word in
Latin, & therefore you must not do so in English. [...]
"The fact is that the remarkable freedom enjoyed by English in putting its
prepositions late & omitting its relatives is an important element in the
flexibility of the language. The power of saying *A state of dejection such
as they are absolute strangers to* (Cowper) intsead of *A state of dejection
of an intensity to which they are absolute strangers*, or *People worth
talking to* instead of *People with whom it is worth while to talk* is not
one to be lightly surrendered."

I love that! There's a lot more here, that I have no time to type up. He
quotes a large number of English authors, from Chaucer to Kipling, all using
final prepositions. Here's a good one from Shakespeare: "Such bitter
business as the day Would quake to look on." And from Lowell: "Make them
show what they are made of."

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