Pedantry and Prepositions

In our rush to write perfect English, we should perhaps pause for a moment and consider the importance of style. Whilst some words and phrases are quite clearly wrong, there are occasions when style can legitimately overrule supposedly correct sentence structure. Just because a sentence disobeys one or more rules, it is not necessarily badly written.

One example is the rule that you must never end a sentence with a preposition. So, ‘here’s a good example to start with.’

Technically that’s wrong: it should really be ‘here’s a good example with which to start.’

But ‘here’s a good example to start with’ sounds much cleaner and better balanced – and somehow flows more freely. There are no ambiguities, the meaning is clear and it sounds like the way we would speak.

Writing and speaking are different forms of the same thing – communication. It is a common mistake to write in a more formal way than we would speak – but why do we sometimes try? Perhaps it’s a vain attempt to impress; perhaps, if we are older citizens, it’s just the way we were taught.

A famous joke involving Winston Churchill tells how a magazine editor once changed a sentence of his so that it did not end in a preposition. Being proud of his writing style, Churchill became angry and scribbled over the document ‘This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’

That may or may not be correct English – at least the sentence does not end with a preposition – but it’s just plain ugly. In the end … style must always come first.

When you first start to learn fencing or karate, you are taught precise moves. This is how you move forwards; this is how you move backwards; and so on. It is only when you have mastered the exact mechanics that you can begin to develop your individual style – the subtle differences that will make you a champion.

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