Tuesday, February 26, 2013
“On”, “in”... er, make that “at”
Prepositions are tricky little buggers. When learning another language they can be amongst the most difficult words to master, because, in many cases, their application seems quite arbitrary. When working with students for whom English is not their first language, this has been among the most difficult things to explain. Often there is no explanation, beyond “it just sounds right.”
For example, in English we say that we did something on a Monday in August at night. But why do we do something “on Monday”? It could just as easily be “in Monday”, because it takes place within the boundaries that determine the beginning and end of that day. Or “in night”, for the same reason. Indeed, why does there have to be a preposition at all? Why not just say “I did it Monday”?
We say that someone walks “up the street”; but “down the street” means exactly the same thing. Unless, that is, we are following a rule related to the numbering of the houses. But I don’t give that a thought when saying “up” or “down” the street.
Some words require prepositions and some don’t. For example, we talk about something; but we simply discuss it.
This difficulty with prepositions is not restricted to English. I have encountered similar problems trying to cope with prepositions in French.
Of course, one of the things that has plagued the use of prepositions is the so-called rule stating that a sentence must not end with a preposition. There is the well-known protest by Winston Churchill, quoted in various forms, but which is more or less as follows: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put!” Actually, as far as I can ascertain, there never has been such a rule, although “prepositional fundamentalists” become apoplectic if this rule is broken: it signals the end of civilisation as we know it. There are clearly cases where ending the sentence with a preposition is much to be preferred over constructing convoluted sentences such as that used by Churchill to illustrate the point. “That’s not something we choose to talk about” is surely preferable to, “That’s not something about which we choose to talk.” It is tidier to say, “Which shop are you going to?” than, “To which shop are you going?” If I am about to board a ship or a plane, how could I say, “Shall we go aboard?” without placing the preposition at the end of the sentence? Of course, these sentences could probably be rephrased without using a preposition: “”Shall we board?” This is fine, if our aim is to eliminate prepositions from the language. But as long as they have a place in the language, in many (I don’t say all) cases, prepositions can comfortably end sentences.
Before we mount our high horses, we need to remind ourselves that many (if not all) great writers have readily ended sentences with prepositions. Let us conclude with a short extract from the writings of a little known sixteenth/seventeenth century English playwright:
By a sleep to say we end
The heartaches and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.
Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death–
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns– puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?