Sunday, April 11, 2010

Calling B.S. on a prescriptivist

In today's edition of the Express-News, this letter to the editor appears.

Headline a faux pas

I reluctantly acknowledge there is a “dumbing down” of America, but I would never believe the Express-News or any responsible newspaper would pander to that movement.

However, on Page 1 April 2, you printed a story about the census under the headline, “Where you were at, not where you're from, counts.”

Where you were at? Never end a sentence with a preposition. How about “Where you reside ...”? Or “Where you presently reside ...”?

I understand issues of space and layout, but that shouldn't compromise the standards of journalism and grammar.

Kathleen Trottier

Editor'snote: The Express-News acknowledges the grammatical faux pas, which was committed by a copy editor, not the author of the story.

And I respond in the comments with this:
Kathleen Trottier and borderplex [another commenter on the same article] are both wrong, and the Express-News editors are wrong to acknowledge their supposed "gotcha." There is no "faux pas" in ending a sentence with a preposition because there is no "rule" in English that demands it. Respected writers have been ending their sentences with prepositions for hundreds of years, and only stiff prescriptivists insist we should adhere to this shibboleth at every turn. "Where you were at" communicates the message just fine in English, and it breaks no rules.

For a more nuanced approach to this issue, check out what Jack Lynch has to say about it.
On the other hand — and it's a big other hand — old-timers shouldn't always dictate your writing, and you don't deserve your writing license if you elevate this rough guideline into a superstition. Don't let it make your writing clumsy or obscure; if a sentence is more graceful with a final preposition, let it stand.
Good writing to all, and to all a good night.

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