Thursday, October 25, 2007

More On The Terminal Preposition

In researching the last post, I found the following and had to share it. It comes from Mark Israel at

The Guinness Book of (World) Records used to have a category for "most prepositions at end." The incumbent record was a sentence put into the mouth of a boy who didn't want to be read excerpts from a book about Australia as a bedtime story:

"What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of about 'Down Under' up for?"

Mark Brader (all this is to the best of his recollection; he didn't save the letter, and doesn't have access to the British editions) wrote to Guinness, asking: "What did you say that the sentence with the most prepositions at the end was 'What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of about "Down Under" up for?' for? The preceding sentence has one more." Norris McWhirter replied, promising to include this improvement in the next British edition, but actually it seems that Guinness, no doubt eventually realising that this could be done recursively, dropped the category.

The Preposition Myth

I'm not that old, but I was taught in my youth not to end a sentence with a preposition. I was supposed to replace a perfectly decent sentence like:

What are you driving at?


At what are you driving?

I'm not sure how I would repair Who is Myrtle going out with? since With whom is Myrtle going out? still ends in a preposition (technically it's an adverbial particle, but it sure looks like a preposition to most folks).

So let's just make this clear: "Don't end sentences with prepositions" has always been a dubious rule, and in recent decades has been debunked by everybody who writes about such things. That includes Edward D. Johnson in The Handbook of Good English, Constance Hale in Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, Patricia T. O'Conner in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English and the undisputed world champion Guru of Grammar, H.W. Fowler, in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd Ed.

It seems the rule was created centuries ago by grammarians who tied English unnecessarily to Latin (where it's impossible to end sentences with prepositions). Since prepositions always have objects, they reasoned, the objects should always follow the preposition. But that just makes for some really ugly English.

My favorite quote on this is from Churchill. The story goes that while going over a proof of one of his books, he found a sentence clumsily reworked by an editor who didn't approve of a terminating preposition. In the margin Churchill wrote, "This is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which I will not put."

(This quote varies some. It's likely he wrote "bloody nonsense" and any other versions are simply euphemistic.)

What I find most interesting is how just about everybody ignores this rule in practice, yet almost everybody can quote it. How does a dumb rule that nobody follows survive at all for so long?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Baseball Idioms

It's playoff time in baseball, so let's list some of the ways baseball jargon has flavored and enriched American English. Here are a few examples of common idioms that come directly from baseball:

in the ballpark/ballpark figure: "I didn't predict the score exactly, but I was in the ballpark."
batting a thousand: "That's another sale! So far today I'm batting a thousand."
throw a curve ball: "I had the plan down until my boss threw me a curve ball."
cover all the bases: "Before you start the project, be sure to have all your bases covered."
get to first base: "I met with the client, but we didn't even get to first base."
go to bat for someone: "I would have been in big trouble if Ed wasn't willing to go to bat for me."
play hardball: "If we are going to stay competitive, we're going to have to play hardball with our competition."
knock it out of the park: "John's presentation was great; he really knocked it out of the park."
out of left field: "Boy, that comment was out of left field."
way off base: "His ideas for reforming education are way off base."
rain check: "I can't make our lunch. Can I have a rain check?"
right off the bat: "I made a good impression right off the bat."
screwball: "The guy with the clown shoes is a real screwball."
step up to the plate: "We are in big trouble until a real leader steps up to the plate."
three strikes: "He better not mess up again; he's already got two strikes against him."
touch base: "Call me next week so we can touch base."
whole new ball game: "I understand Algebra, but Trigonometry is a whole new ball game."

Thanks to Wikipedia for some of these.

Airline Trickery

You've got to watch those airline folks. I flew to Sacremento for a convention this week, and when I got to my gate I was told I could "get on the plane."

"Oh, no!" I said, "I'm getting IN the plane!"

What are they trying to pull anyway? I mean, how long do they expect me to survive ON an airplane?

Which clearly illustrates the importance of knowing your prepositions.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Verbing Weirds Language

Verbification, or verbing is the turning of perfectly good nouns into perfectly awful and unnecessary verbs. Corporate America is the worst culprit. Instead of providing incentives, years ago companies began to incentivize. Now they talk about the dangers of disincentivizing.

When I arrive at airports these days I am deplaned. At restaurants, my food gets plated (I wonder why my drinks aren't cupped or my soup bowled). People used to engage in dialogue. Now they just dialogue. Friends no longer enjoy fellowship, they simply fellowship (this one bugs me in particular because the suffix -ship is meant to denote a noun). A short time ago, access was something you could gain. Now it's commonly something you do. Same with impact. You used to have an impact. Now you can simply impact something.

Okay, it's true that verbification can be a legitimate way for language to evolve and grow. You can argue that access, for example, is a useful addition to the language. I can live with that. And popular verbification has given us verbs like mail, strike, salt, pepper, switch, sleep, ship, train, stop, drink, cup, lure, mutter, dress, divorce, fool, and merge.

But these words are not only convenient and useful, they are pleasing to the ear. Throwing an -ize, -ing, or -ate onto a noun form is almost always ugly and unnecessary. Here are some examples of useless, discordant business verbing:

concretize (We concretized the design.)
rightsize (Stan lost his job when HQ rightsized last May.)
actioning (Don't pester me, I'm actioning the strategy.)
anonymize (Before you submit our proposal, you might want to anonymize it.)
monetize (The plan looks good, but let's monetize it first.)
solutioning (What this department needs is some solutioning.)
leveraging (We need to leverage our core competencies.)

And, yes, I am aware that to verbify and to verb are themselves examples of verbification. It's an intentional irony--get it?

An old Calvin and Hobbes strip dealt with this issue and concluded with the brilliant line: "Verbing weirds language."

(Thanks to David Sims for this post idea.)