Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Prescriptivism and preposition stranding in eighteenth-century prose*

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Nuria Yáñez-Bouza (contact)

(University of Manchester, UK, Universidade de Vigo, Spain)

Received November 2005, published January 2006 (HSL/SHL 6)


1. Introduction[1]

The prejudice against ending a sentence with a preposition has traditionally been a matter of concern for normative grammarians, who are in search of regularity, refinement and proper use of the language. Sentences like those in (1) were severely criticised in the eighteenth century as being colloquial, inelegant, improper or even harsh (Sundby et al. 1991:426-428), and ever since, end-placed prepositions have been frowned upon in grammar books and usage guides (e.g. Alford 1864:§§201‑204; Fowler and Fowler 1931:92; Crystal 1995:194; Burchfield 1996:sv. ‘prepositions’).

(1a) Who are you talking to?
(1b) I was shouted at for being late at work.

The construction illustrated in (1) above is generally known as preposition stranding, which Denison (1998:220) defined as the syntactic phenomenon whereby a preposition is left in a deferred, i.e. stranded, position at or near the end of a clause without any immediately following object. It must be noted at this point that there is a close link between the occurrence of stranded prepositions and informal discourse situations, since style has been one of the primary reasons for grammarians to criticise the phenomenon in question: preposition stranding has always been used more frequently in informal style and spoken language; it is “one of the outstanding features of our language” and “is so natural … that we have extended this usage beyond its original boundaries” (Curme 1931:chXXIX.§62.4; cf. also Poutsma 1928:chVIII.§86, chXXXIIX.§28; Quirk et al. 1985:§9.6; Biber et al. 1999:§; Huddleston and Pullum 2002:ch7.§4.1). Yet, the proscription “still raises its head today” and the practice is as often criticised now as then (Beal 2004:84-85,112). Those who are aware of the norm and are sensitive to stylistic differences in language would regard stranded prepositions as bad grammar and might carefully and consciously resort to alternative constructions, mainly in formal and/or written styles (Tieken‑Boon van Ostade 2000:885; cf. §4). Examples of such strategies may be found in (2) and (3) below:

(2a) That tiny hole is the place which the mouse escaped from.

(2b) That tiny hole is the place from which the mouse escaped.
(2c) That tiny hole is the place wherefrom the mouse escaped.


(3a) My car was broken into last night.

(3b) Somebody broke into my car last night.

In some contexts, the preposition would be fronted together with its object as in (2b), a construction known as pied piping, or it might be combined with the relative adverb where as in (2c), even “running the risk of creating an impression of pedantry and stuffiness” (Huddleston and Pullum 2002:ch7.§4.1, ch12.§3.5.3; cf. also Burchfield 1996:sv.‘where-compounds’). There are still other syntactic strategies available to the speaker, as in (3), where the passive sentence requiring the preposition to be stranded (3a) is turned into the active, thus followed by its object (3b).[2] Curiously enough, some eighteenth-century grammarians called for some of these strategies, as, for instance, the “exchange” of a prepositional verb for a transitive verb suggested by Philip Withers (21789):

It may be said, it is absolutely unavoidable on particular occasions. v.g. The Stock was disposed OF BY private contract … But an elegant writer would rather vary the phrase, or exchange the “verb” than admit so awkward a concurrence of prepositions. v.g. The Stock was SOLD by private contract.

(Withers 21789:391; capitals in original[3])

Given the possibility of having various strategies available to the speaker if he/she is determined to avoid the stigmatised form, in my research I have decided to include all instances of preposition stranding in the analysis (Yáñez-Bouza 2004, 2005a, in prep. a). The common procedure in the literature, however, is to consider only those linguistic contexts in which there is free variation between preposition stranding and pied piping, thus excluding from the statistics the so-called knock-out contexts in which there is no choice (e.g. passive clauses); yet, it must be noted that these studies are focused on the analysis of syntactic variation between these two particular constructions only, whereas my investigation is primarily focused on the use of preposition stranding from a broader perspective (Guy and Bailey 1995:155‑160; Bergh and Seppänen 2000:310-312.fn12; Huddleston and Pullum 2002:ch7.§4.1; cf. Biber et al. 1999:§§

In this paper two main topics will be discussed. In the first place, I will survey the historical context in which the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition was laid down, thereby offering new insights into the extent to which prescriptive ideals such as the ideals of correctness and politeness were responsible for the stigmatisation of this construction. Secondly, my analysis of the use and distribution of preposition stranding in six formal and informal prose genres will shed more light on the impact of eighteenth-century normative grammars on contemporary written usage, in line with previous studies which have investigated other morphosyntactic features (e.g. Tieken‑Boon van Ostade 1994, 2002a, 2005, forthcoming; Percy 1996; Oldireva Gustafsson 2002; Auer and González-Díaz 2005).

As observed by Finegan, “when one thinks of English literature during the Renaissance, it is drama that comes to mind … but when one thinks of the eighteenth century, prose comes to mind” (1992:107; my emphasis). Thus, the material under investigation has been retrieved from part B of Milic’s Century of Prose Corpus (COPCB), a half‑million word diachronic corpus of British English produced by less well-known writers from 1680 to 1780 (Milic 1990, 1995). The six genres selected are letters and memoirs,[4] travelogue, fiction, educational treatises, essays, and history, which altogether consist of approximately 120,000 words of running text. The analysis of this relatively limited amount of material will serve as a pilot study for a large-scale investigation of preposition stranding from a historical sociolinguistic perspective (Yáñez-Bouza in prep. a). A final comment about the methodology adopted for the purposes of this paper is that the time-span in question has been divided into two subperiods, namely 1680‑1740 and 1740-1780, the main reason being that the bulk of normative grammars and dictionaries were published during the second half of the eighteenth century.[5] The effect of prescriptive ideals such as the ideal of correctness and the ideal of politeness would therefore only possibly have been an issue during the latter part of that century.


2. Authority in language

The period ranging from 1680 to 1780 as represented in the COPCB covers a crucial period of development in the history of English due to the unstable and varying attitudes towards language with regard to syntax and prose style. The final decades of the seventeenth century marked the beginning of a widespread public awareness and consciousness of language change, and also of a large-scale discussion about the English language such as had never before taken place. As described by Söderlind (1964:124), the Restoration period, a period of social and political turmoil, “longed for prescription”, for improvement, refinement and fixing of the language. Among the late seventeenth‑century literati, John Dryden (1631‑1700) expressed his self-confidence of living in a new time when he referred to Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare as those who belonged to “the last age”, those whose language he set out to correct (‘Defence of the Epilogue to The Conquest of Granada’, 1672). It was the beginning of a new era which brought about new ideals such as the ideal of correctness and the ideal of politeness. It was the birth of the “appeal to authority” (Baugh and Cable 2002:253‑295), and of what might be referred to as “Authoritarian English” (Nist 1966:269‑300). 

The eighteenth century has been defined in many general histories of English as “an age of prescriptivism, when the ‘doctrine of correctness’ held sway” (Beal 2004:89). According to Rydén (1984:513-514), “the 18th century in itself is the first century to evince a more massive interest in syntactic usage, albeit primarily from a prescriptive or proscriptive angle: the grammarian, not usage, became the official arbiter of language”. Calls for an academy of English language had been made by prestigious writers such as John Dryden (1664), Daniel Defoe (1697) and Jonathan Swift (1712), but the project never took off. The codification of the English language was instead in the hands of “a band of independent entrepreneurs” who stated dogmatic assertions with authoritarian attitudes according to their own predilection (Finegan 1992:121, 1998:536-547). These codifiers were viewed as being endowed with authority on language and their “ipse dixit pronouncements” (Leonard 1929:35‑44; Finegan 1998:572; Beal 2004:115-116) as “Authoritarian English”.

The eighteenth‑century normative grammatical tradition was based on reason, analogy, propriety, decorum, politeness, and, above all, correctness. Leonard (1929:81), for instance, notes that a great many observations made by eighteenth-century grammarians were meticulous, the emphasis being on matters of logic and analogy to the extent that some existing forms were wrongly (re‑)interpreted when compared to Latin structures. Forms not paralleled in Latin grammar were condemned as bad, incorrect, inaccurate, absurd, inelegant, or branded as solecisms.[6] At the time, the ars recte dicendi (‘the art of speaking correctly’) implied that alternative expressions with the same meaning or function could not be all correct, so that one of them would inevitably be doomed to stigmatisation.[7]

Alongside the ideal of correctness, the ideal of politeness was crucial too. In a period of considerable linguistic self-consciousness like the eighteenth century, writers associated grammatical correctness with “the genteel concern for politeness and refinement” (Finegan 1992:106), so that “these initiatives in linguistic prescription were linked to the ideals of politeness” (Klein 1994:31; cf. also Watts 2002). Thus, towards the end of the seventeenth century, Daniel Defoe (?1661-1731) had launched a call

to encourage Polite Learning, to polish and refine the English Tongue, and advance the so much neglected faculty of Correct Language, to establish Purity and Propriety of style, and to purge it from all the Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduc’d (An essay upon projects, 1697:233).

In the decades to come writers such as Shaftesbury, Addison, Steele, and Swift expressed similar opinions. While in the early century politeness was primarily concerned with “pragmatic language behaviour”, that of “the polite urban, metropolitan gentlemen”, after the mid‑century there was a shift in the cultural and social dimensions with important implications for linguistic usage, what Klein (1994) called polite prescriptivism: the “overt statement of rules in support of a single and specific standard”; a standard, correct form which would be identified with the language used by the educated class in polite London circles (Stein 1994:8; cf. also Leonard 1929:169; Watts 2002:162). One example of this model of correct language based on the polite society is the standard pronunciation described by Thomas Sheridan (1719‑1788) in his Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762), where he states that 

… all who have an opportunity of being informed of that pronunciation, most used by men of education at court, will have the best authority on their side; as that is indeed the only standard we can refer to, in critical cases, as well as others (Sheridan 1762:36; cited in Watts 2002:166).


3. Prescriptivism and preposition stranding

Preposition stranding was one of the items that called for comment in this era. Firstly, the placing of a preposition at the end of a sentence had no equivalent in Latin syntax, on which the majority of the normative grammarians based themselves for their linguistic strictures. Latin grammar demanded the sequence preposition+object, i.e. pied piping. Secondly, according to the etymology of the term preposition, from Latin prae- ‘before’ and ponere ‘place’, the preposition ought to be placed before the word it governs. Indeed, the prepositive character is the “customary description” of this part of speech in eighteenth-century grammar books (Michael 1970:454-461), as for instance in Michael Mattaire (1712:92), who observed that “[preposition] signifies a word placed before, and therefore governing and requiring another to follow”. Furthermore, the craze for regulation and standardisation of the language would rule out variability between syntactic constructions: only one variant would be correct. As described by Sundby (1998:476), most prescriptive grammarians were “anti‑variationist”, so that when they were “confronted with two syntactic variants … the logical outcome of this kind of thinking was to reject the inferior type out of hand”. With regard to preposition stranding, the outcome was that stranded prepositions became stigmatised while other alternatives were prescribed.

John Dryden appears to have been the first writer to attack the use of end‑placed prepositions, probably as a result of applying the rules of Latin syntax to English and of applying the above-mentioned logic of the etymology of the word.[8] Of his two known pronouncements on the matter, the first one occurs in his revisions of common errors of “the last age” when he frowns upon two examples of preposition stranding in Ben Jonson’s Catiline (1611):

         The waves, and dens of beasts cou’d not receive
         the bodies that those souls were frighted from.
The preposition in the end of the sentence; a common
fault with him, and which I have but lately observ’d in
my own writing.
           What all the several ills that visit earth,
           plague, famine, fire, could not reach unto,
           the sword nor surfeits, let thy fury do.
Here are both the former faults: for, besides that the
Preposition unto, is plac’d last in the verse, and at the
half period, as is redundant, there is the former Synchaesis …
                                                            (‘Defence of the Epilogue to The Conquest of Granada’, 1672, in Görlach 1991:251)

William Shakespeare did not escape Dryden’s critical eye either. For instance, Bately (1964:274.fn1) noticed that Dryden altered two stranded prepositions in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1609) when he re-wrote the play in 1679, so that “What were you talking of?” (1609:I.ii.6) became “What were you a talking?” (1679:6), and “I was sent for to the king” (1609:I.ii.6) was re-written as “My Lord, the King has sent for me in haste” (1679:31).[9]

In spite of its having been used by the best Elizabethan writers, Dryden found the construction “inadmissible” and, in accordance with his own stricture, he consciously ceased to place prepositions at the end of a sentence after 1672. Moreover, the writer is well known for having corrected this “fault” in his own writings as “a move towards greater propriety of language” (Ker 1900:I.xxvii). For instance, the reprinted edition of his Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1684[1668]) contains a good number of modifications of the type “the age I live in” (1668:6) into “the age in which I live” (1684:4), and sometimes he even altered the expression by changing a prepositional verb into a transitive verb: “often call’d for and long expected” (1668:3) into “often desired” (1684:2) (cf. Withers’s passage in §1 above). The expressions would now agree with a more sophisticated and Latinate style.[10]

A second remark on the ‘faulty’ use of preposition stranding is found in a letter written to William Walsh (1663-1708) in reply to the young poet’s petition to “look over” a discourse he had “writt in haste” about women (A dialogue concerning women, 1691). Among other “little criticisms” made with “a little malice” on the manuscript of this work, Dryden remarks that

in the correctness of the English … I remember I hinted somewhat of concludding [sic] your sentences with prepositions or conjunctions sometimes, which is not elegant, as in your first sentence – See the consequences of (Letter to Walsh, early 1691, in Ward 1965:34.Let.17).[11]

Interestingly enough, Walsh followed suit and was determined to “take care to correct those little faults” Dryden had pointed out (Ward 1965:36.Let.18). Among them, the stranded preposition in the opening sentence of the printed edition was modified “precisely as Dryden suggests”:[12]

‘TIS a dangerous thing, Madam, it must be confest [sic], this Conversing with fair Ladies; and it draws us into Inconveniencies, of which we do not at first see the Consequences (A dialogue concerning women, 1691:1).[13]

In order to unearth the eighteenth-century grammarians’ attitudes to preposition stranding, I have compiled a corpus of instances of preposition stranding not only as a canon of negative precepts (cf. Sundby et al. 1991:2) but as a canon of the many and varied observations made on the use of end‑placed prepositions in the course of the eighteenth century. The material has been drawn from a thorough examination of 285 works written by 149 different authors from 1700 to 1800, inclusive, as documented in the Eighteenth‑Century Collections Online (ECCO). This new corpus consists of over 1,000 passages in which this syntactic phenomenon is referred to in some way or another, whether to simply describe the idiom as part of the English language (e.g. William Turner 1710; William Ward 1765; Daniel Fenning 1771), or to defend and/or advocate the custom (e.g. Hugh Jones 1724; Joseph Priestley 1761; George Campbell 1776), or, most often, to criticise and proscribe the usage as inelegant, improper, harsh, and even as false grammar (e.g. John Mason 1749; James Buchanan 1767; Hugh Blair 1771).[14] Typical examples of the kind of comments found with neutral and favourable opinions are the following:

Q: Why are these words called prepositions?
A: Because they are commonly placed before the words, to which they refer: as He wrote it with a pencil; He gave it to his sister.

Q: Are they always so placed?

A: No: they are sometimes placed after the word, to which they refer; as How much did you buy it for? Instead of, For how much did you buy it? (Fenning 1771:79-80)

With respect to real harmony … It is often really diverting to see with what extreme caution words of such frequent occurrence as ‘of’ and ‘to’ are prevented from fixing themselves in the close of a sentence; though that be a situation they naturally incline to, where they favour the easy fall of the voice, in a familiar cadence; and from which nothing but the solemnity of an address from the pulpit ought to dislodge them; as in any other place they often give too great a stiffness and formality to a sentence (Priestley 1761:50-51).

As regards unfavourable comments, I have found prescriptions alongside proscriptions: not only did grammarians state what people ought to say but also what people ought not to say (Nist 1966:272; Arnovick 1997:136). Thus, the position of the preposition before the pronoun was often prescribed; for the most part the position at the end was proscribed. One example of the former type of prescriptive comment is found in James Buchanan’s Regular English Syntax (1767), in which he observes that preposition stranding

prevails in common discourse, and in familiar style; but it is certainly more elegant to place the preposition immediately before the relative, especially in the solemn style. ‘It is the God of the universe whom we worship, whom there is none like to, and whom we live, move, and have our being in:’ Here the inelegance of the sentence is glaring; it ought to be to whom there is none like, and in whom we live, move &co. (Buchanan 1767:98).

An example of the latter type of proscriptive comment appears in Matthew Raine’s English Rudiments (1771), where he laid down the rule that the expression with

the preposition in the latter part of the sentence; as, He is a person whom I am much pleased with. This is a truth, which you do not like to be informed of. Whom do you speak to? … ought not to be imitated, as the preposition always stands most gracefully before the relative (Raine 1771:142).


4. Preposition stranding in the Century of Prose Corpus

The relationship between prescriptivism and preposition stranding having been presented in its historical context, the question now is to what extent the prescriptive ideals and the prescriptive grammarians’ remarks against placing a preposition at the end of the sentence had an effect on contemporary usage, in particular, on contemporary written prose. To this end, I will first present data concerning the use of preposition stranding from 1680 to 1780, followed by my analysis across the six prose genres selected in the COPCB.


4.1. Eighteenth-century usage

The figures in Table 1 below represent the main trends in the use of preposition stranding from the late seventeenth century to the late eighteenth century. The data show a clear contrast between the two subperiods examined in that the construction was quite popular in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century prose writings (i.e. 23.3 per 10,000 words), but the usage of end-placed prepositions was remarkably reduced after the mid-eighteenth century (i.e. 11.7 per 10,000 words).


preposition stranding





















Table 1. Diachronic evolution of preposition stranding in the COPCB (absolute figures, normalised frequencies and percentages)[15]

For its part, Table 2, which represents the occurrence of stranded prepositions excluding knock‑out contexts in the data from the COPCB (cf. §1),[16] reveals that the trend identified above is consistent. The use of the stigmatised idiom shows a similar decline from the earlier to the later period, both as regards normalised frequencies (i.e. 4.9 > 3.1 per 10,000 words, respectively), and percentages (i.e. 70% > 30%, respectively).



preposition stranding





















Table 2. Diachronic evolution of preposition stranding in the COPCB excluding knock-out contexts (absolute figures, normalised frequencies and percentages) 

Assuming that social change can give impetus to language change (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 1989:70), the explanation for the development of preposition stranding across time may well be found in the cultural, social and historical background of the (sub)periods, in particular in the flux in attitudes towards language. As discussed above, attitudes towards the vernacular changed substantially in the time‑span under investigation, and those changes might have been reflected in the use and distribution of linguistic constructions such as stranded prepositions. The first period can be said to continue the Baconian tradition characteristic of the seventeenth century, which promoted conversational and plain styles in response to a general preference for rationalism over emotionalism, and bolstered by some members of the Royal Society who aimed at simplifying expository prose writings. Thus the occurrence of preposition stranding, the informal vernacular idiom, is noticeably frequent in the data collected from 1680 to 1740. The tenor changed, however, in the mid-eighteenth century when prescriptivism began to play a role and may possibly already have had the effect on language users that is indicated by the decrease in usage illustrated in Tables 1 and 2. As pointed out by McIntosh (1998:179), not only did the number of grammars published increase “tremendously” after the mid‑century, but “the messages that grammars were sending to their readers changed”, too: grammarians overtly set out to correct the “mistakes” found in established writers such as Addison, Swift and Pope. Robert Lowth was one of them:

it will evidently appear from these notes, that our best authors for want of some rudiments of this kind have sometimes fallen into mistakes and been guilty of palpable errors in point of grammar … they may be sufficient to answer the purpose intended: to evince the necessity of the study of grammar in our own language (Lowth 1762:ix-x).

These “errors” were of a particular nature: common idioms, colloquial expressions, or the language of the vulgar. Like other rhetoricians, lexicographers and influential writers of the time, Lowth was very sensitive to stylistic differences in language and in his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) he showed his preference for “a style of writing that is distinct from speech”, favouring aristocratic standards while stigmatising linguistic features characteristic of informal language (Finegan 1992:124). Preposition stranding was one of them:

This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of a preposition before the relative, is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous, and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style (Lowth 1762:127-128).

As many other eighteenth-century grammarians, Lowth was reluctant to syntactic variation, and guided by the oft-quoted principles of purity, perspicuity and precision of expression, he was “bound to treat one [variant] as more precise, perspicuous or pure than the other” (Sundby 1998:476; see also §3), namely the construction with the preposition “before”.

Lowth’s insightful observations have been plagiarised to a large extent in many contemporary and later grammar books (Yáñez‑Bouza in prep. b), and although recent studies have shown that his strictures were not as dogmatic as generally thought (e.g. Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1997, 2002b, 2005, forthcoming; Beal 2004), ever since, there has been a general tendency to avoid stranded prepositions in literary styles and written registers, which are more elaborated and planned than speech and, therefore, more vulnerable to normative pressure (Bergh and Seppänen 2000:312; cf. also Visser 1970:§412; Quirk et al. 1985:§1.17; Huddleston and Pullum 2002:ch7.§4.1).

To this, we can add the influence of the ideology of polite prescriptivism mentioned above (cf. §2). Eighteenth-century grammarians, lexicographers and rhetoricians codified “a single and specific standard” so that the correct form was “that of gentlemen” (Leonard 1929:169), hence conveying the value of being polite usage, and those who used the correct forms would be considered polite persons. The other side of the coin is that the incorrect forms would be stigmatised and those who used them would be considered socially inferior. The use of standard language became thus “an indispensable attribute of anyone belonging to, or aspiring to belong to, ‘polite society’” (Watts 2002:155,167; cf. also Stein 1994:8). Withers’s (21789) quotation below illustrates the importance of this “distinction” in late eighteenth-century England:

My animadversions will extend to such phrases only as people in decent life inadvertently adopt … Every novelty in dress is purchased with avidity, and all remonstrance silenced by an appeal, not to propriety but to property … Hence the importance of early attention to Purity and Politeness of Expression: it is the only external distinction which remains between Gentleman and a Valet; a Lady and a Mantua-marker (Withers 21789:160‑161).


4.2. Usage according to different genres  

The analysis of the textual distribution of preposition stranding presented in Table 3 below is particularly interesting in that it sheds more light on the question of to what extent eighteenth‑century normative grammars had an impact on the actual usage of this particular construction in contemporary prose writings. Not only does the general frequency of stranded prepositions decrease, as shown in Table 1 and Table 2, the decline is consistently reflected across five of the six genres selected from the COPCB, the exception being history, which remains constant throughout.   


preposition stranding





























































Table 3. Textual distribution of preposition stranding in the COPCB (absolute figures and normalised frequencies).[17] 

In order to describe usage across genres, we must take into consideration the prose stylistic trends during the period in question. Finegan (1992:104-105), for instance, observes that in a time of great social, political and intellectual change as the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century were, the “flux in linguistic attitudes” which especially affected “notions of good English and grammatical correctness” prompted the “flux” in ideals of “what constituted good prose style”, and also self‑consciousness of stylistic differences in language between oral/informal and literate/formal forms.

Previous studies have described the stylistic drift of various prose genres in Modern English based on a multidimensional approach to register variation (Biber and Finegan 1988, 1989, 1992, 1997; González‑Álvarez and Pérez-Guerra 1998; Biber 2001).[18] Their analysis of three dimensions which show differences between the ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ styles, namely ‘Informational vs. Involved Production’ (Dimension 1), ‘Elaborated vs. Situation-Dependent Reference’ (Dimension 3), and ‘Abstract vs. Non‑Abstract Style’ (Dimension 5), points to a general tendency for genres to develop towards a more oral style, involved and conversational, in the seventeenth century in line with the “accessible prose” scientists and humanists were aiming at, helped by growing literacy and the broader audience from rising middle‑class readership. Oral dimensions are still found in early eighteenth‑century writings, but throughout that century, prose genres consistently evolved towards a more literate style in the formal/informal stylistic continuum, one which was less involved, more abstract, more elaborated and carefully planned. In response to conscious aesthetic preferences, eighteenth-century writers would despise the colloquial and would privilege literate norms in favour of a more flowery, rhetoric and “purple prose” (McIntosh 1998:22-41; cf. also Finegan 1992:107-109).  In those multidimensional analyses, stranded prepositions are among the co‑occurrent linguistic features with positive weight in Dimension 1, implying that preposition stranding usually co‑occurs with features representative of involved, oral and interactive communicative situations, and with those which mark a reduced surface form and a generally fragmented production of the text, such as that‑deletion, pronominal forms and contractions, as opposed to linguistic features associated with exact informational content, like attributive adjectives or nouns (Biber 1988:102, 1995:113-114; Biber and Finegan 1989:490-492). The similar decline in the usage of preposition stranding across genres in the second subperiod as shown in Table 3 might be considered part of the general stylistic drift in eighteenth-century prose genres which moved away from the vernacular idiom, presumably in response to a set of fixed rules imposed in the prescriptive era.

Besides attitudinal motivations like the ones described so far, there are also functional motivations to be considered for each of the different genres here examined.

Letters and travel accounts are generally considered informal genres: they are characteristically involved and intimate in content, and they report on personal experience usually in first person singular (cf. Biber and Finegan 1989:496-497, 1997:265; Kytö and Rissanen 1993:9-10; and Taavitsainen 1997:247-248, among others). In the data documented in the COPCB, both genres show a similar high incidence of preposition stranding in the first subperiod (i.e. 20 and 22.5 per 10,000 words, respectively) followed by a decrease in usage in the second subperiod (i.e. 13.7 and 16.2 per 10,000 words, respectively). Yet we must note that this decline is not as drastic as in the other non-personal genres here examined, presumably due to the close link between the use of stranded prepositions and informal discourse situations. As far as letters are concerned, in contrast to the free(r) conversational style of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, epistolary writing became an ‘art’ in the course of the eighteenth century, consciously crafted and revised. Letter writers were fully aware that their letters might not be solely read by the addressee; in fact, they were often read aloud for entertainment, and some letters, such as Pope’s, were deliberately re-written for publication. This self‑consciousness might have influenced the language used, resulting in carefully constructed and polished sentences in which colloquial idioms would have little or no place (cf. Anderson et al. 1966; Crawford 1985; Guillén 1986; Wright 1993; Fitzmaurice 2000).[19] For instance, Austin (1994:285-286) has shown that William Clift, of humble birth, consciously adapted his dialectal and colloquial idiolect to the new standard forms after moving to London: “it is clear that as soon as [the Clift family] took up a pen they framed their mind to a formal mode of thinking … [and] aspired to the standard form of written English of the time” (my emphasis; see also Austin 1985). Among the texts examined in the COPCB, the passage by Henrietta Luxborough (1699-1756) below also exemplifies eighteenth‑century letter writers’ awareness of the issues:  

Your remark upon “Fitzosborne’s Letters” is most just; for letters that are, or even seem to be, written for the press, never please like others: yet they are, I think, written in good language, and show, I believe, polite learning and judgement; and the style would be unexceptionable, I fancy, in essays (COPCB: Luxborough Letters to Shenstone 1748:0021/060).

Writers of travel accounts were likewise aware that their logbooks could also be destined for publication, as was the case with Captain Cook and his journals (Percy 1996). That may also explain the scanty occurrence of stranded prepositions in the samples from the COPCB by Robert Wood (1757), Ruins of Balbec, and by Richard Chandler (1769), Ionian Antiquities, with only two tokens each. 

At the other end of the stylistic continuum, historical texts are produced in a very formal setting, with features characteristic of written language and elaborate style, and with primarily informational purposes. The informal construction preposition stranding is then expectedly infrequent even in the first subperiod. It records the lowest frequency among the six genres here examined and remains constant throughout (i.e. 12.5 per 10,000 words). Thus, it is not surprising to find in both subperiods sample texts of this genre in which no stranded preposition has been recorded, like, for instance, Critical History of England by John Oldmixon (1728), and Hermes by James Harris (1751). The absence of preposition stranding in the latter sample is somewhat not unexpected since Harris is one of the main representative figures in defence of universal grammar and analogy with Latin (Leonard 1929:48).

The distribution of preposition stranding in the narrative fiction, educational treatises and essays documented in the COPCB follows a remarkably high frequency of stranded prepositions in the first subperiod (i.e. 30.8, 25.8, and 28.3 per 10,000 words, respectively), which drastically and consistently drops after the mid-century (i.e. 11.2, 11.2, and 5.0 per 10,000 words, respectively), even lower than in historical texts in the same time-span. According to Biber and Finegan (1989:495, 1992:693), these genres are literate from a situational perspective in that they are produced and edited carefully and directed towards a large audience; besides, they show a similar shift in the course of the eighteenth century towards a more informational, extremely elaborate and markedly abstract style (see also González-Álvarez and Pérez-Guerra 1998). They differ, however, in their purpose of communication. On the one hand, educational treatises and essays have a typically informational purpose, sometimes argumentative or persuasive (Biber and Finegan 1988:92,96). If a large number of eighteenth-century normative books disdained the placing of prepositions at the end of a sentence, it is expected that stranded prepositions will be avoided in these very same educational treatises, essays and handbooks, in which they were criticised. Interestingly enough, the decline in usage is consistently reflected in all the samples documented in the second subperiod from both genres, and in some of them no stranded preposition has been attested, as in William Massey’s educational treatise Origin of Letters (1763), or Henry St. John’s essay Study of History (1752). On the other hand, imaginative narration generally describes events and situations for purposes of aesthetic enjoyment, it is consciously planned and revised, and the dialogue passages –  if any[20] – are not directly interactive (Biber and Finegan 1989:511). In the first subperiod of the COPCB, among the six genres under examination fiction shows an outstanding high frequency of preposition stranding, presumably in an attempt to approach the increasing literate middle-class readership by using the familiar language. However, after the mid-eighteenth century a more narrative concern predominates, enriched with aesthetic rationale, thus moving towards a more literate style and away from the colloquial idiom (Biber and Finegan 1989, 1992; Pooley 1992:17‑50; González‑Álvarez and Pérez-Guerra 1998).[21] For instance, no stranded preposition has been attested in the sample from Pompey the Little by Francis Coventry (1752), and only three tokens occur in Charles Johnstone’s sample from Chrysal (1761).

The analysis of contemporary prose writings in this section seems to suggest, as pointed out by McIntosh (1998:180‑181), that eighteenth-century normative grammars, “both cause and symptom of language consciousness”, did influence writers to make their texts more literate throughout that century and less vernacular than had been before, one consequence being the decrease in use of stranded prepositions.


5. Conclusion

The aim of this paper was to trace the use and distribution of the syntactic construction preposition stranding in eighteenth-century written prose as documented in part B of the Century of Prose Corpus. The century from 1680 to 1780 covered by this corpus was of particular interest to me because of the linguistic and literary attitudes with regard to notions of  ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English, ‘correct’ and ‘polite’ language. The analysis of the occurrence of stranded prepositions in six formal and informal genres has shown a drastic decrease in frequency in the course of the eighteenth century, the reasons being, evidently, the stigmatisation of the vernacular idiom; as such, the development is part of the stylistic drift towards a more literate prose style during the eighteenth century.

In my view, this shift was not so much an expression of a genuine grammatical change internal to the language, but rather the result of the chief prescriptive ideals of correctness and politeness. On the basis of the findings obtained in this study, there seems to be a certain parallelism in the development of these ideals and the process of stigmatisation of end-placed prepositions, which may well be viewed as a “change from above” in Labovian terms (1994:78). The late seventeenth century witnessed the emergence of the prescriptive era, and it was in the last quarter of the seventeenth century when attention was drawn to the syntactic phenomenon of preposition stranding by John Dryden, who first branded the idiom as inelegant. While the prescriptive ideals of correctness and politeness developed and strengthened their values and pragmatics during the early eighteenth century, the occurrence of preposition stranding was still high (see Table 1, 1680‑1740). The effect of the stigmatisation process appears to have grown stronger after the mid‑eighteenth century, when a large number of normative grammars, dictionaries and rhetorical treatises condemned the usage as being improper and unsuitable in the solemn style and correct language of the polite society. Thus, it is in the second period of the corpus (1740‑1780) that the drastic decline of preposition stranding has been consistently attested.

As pointed out in the introduction, due to certain limitations of the material examined the conclusions presented here are to be treated as tentative rather than definitive, but it certainly leaves the door open for further investigation with more corpora and more genres to be examined. All in all, although attitudes to language have changed and present‑day English linguistics tends to be more descriptive in its approach, three hundred years after Dryden’s remark preposition stranding is still among the ten top grammatical features language users complain about (Crystal 1995:194; cf. also Burchfield 1981:30-31), and present‑day English usage guides still echo the once “cherished superstition”, giving the advice that “in most circumstances, esp[ecially] in formal writing, it is desirable to avoid placing a preposition at the end of a clause or sentence, where it has the appearance of being stranded” (Burchfield 1996:619; cf. also Humphrys 2004:xii,41).



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* This paper was first presented at the Second Late Modern English Conference held at the University of Vigo in November 2004. I am grateful to the audience there for their suggestions.

[1] The research presented here was supported by the ‘Dirección Xeral de Investigación e Desenvolvemento da Xunta de Galicia’ (Spain), and by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, grant number HUM2005-02351/FILO. These grants are hereby gratefully acknowledged.

[2] These and other strategies are discussed in, for instance, Quirk et al. (1985:§6.38,§9.6,§11.15), Biber et al. (1999:§, and Huddleston and Pullum (2002:ch7.§4.1).

[3] In quoted passages, my emphasis is indicated in bold.

[4] The samples labelled ‘letters and memoirs’ in the COPCB include personal letters, memoirs and diaries.

[5] Leonard (1929:12) and Michael (1970:277, 1987:7-13) noted that whereas fewer than 50 writings on grammar, rhetoric, criticism and language history have been listed for the first half of the century, the publications in the latter period exceeded 200 titles. See also, McIntosh (1998:171‑194), Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2000:877), and Baugh and Cable (2002:274).

[6] Sundby et al. (1991) provide a full account of the range of verdicts pronounced with regard to a variety of morphosyntactic features attacked in eighteenth‑century normative grammars.

[7] According to Milroy and Milroy (1985:8,40), the process of standardisation inherently involves the “suppression of optional variability in language”, on the grounds that (i) “there is one, and only one, correct way of speaking and/or writing the English language”; (ii) “deviations from this norm are illiteracies, or barbarisms, and non-standard forms are irregular and perversely deviant”; (iii) “people ‘ought’ to use the standard language”.

[8] The discussion presented here on Dryden and preposition stranding is partly taken from Bately (1964), partly the result of independent research in Yáñez‑Bouza (in prep. a).

[9] I am grateful to Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade for pointing out this to me (personal communication). See also Tieken-Boon van Ostade (1990).

[10] Dryden’s desire to attain a perfect and correct language is evident not only in his non-dramatic prose but also in non-dramatic verse, as well as in some prose and verse plays, as in the ‘Dedication to the Indian Emperor’, 1668[1667] (cf. Bately 1964:268-276; Yáñez-Bouza in prep. a).

[11] To my knowledge, the letters that have come to us in which the use of end-placed prepositions is discussed are the ones presented as Letter 16 and Letter 17 in Ward (1965:31‑36).

[12] Ward (1965:155.Let.12.fn1, 157.Let.17.fn4, 158.Let.18.fn1) provides more examples of Walsh’s modifications following Dryden’s advice. The influence of Dryden on this and other contemporary writers is currently being examined in Yáñez‑Bouza (in prep. a).

[13] This modification was first noted by Bately (1964:271.fn1); the full quotation has been taken from the original text.

[14] ECCO is a valuable digital collection of various types of text published in England between 1701 and 1800. It was first accessed online from the website of The John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester in November 2004. Further and more complete research was carried out from April to June 2005. Sometimes I have looked at the printed book, too. On some other occasions, when access to the original work was not possible, I have taken Sundby et al. (1991:426-428) as the reference source. A full discussion on the process of compilation and the contents of this (self‑compiled) corpus will be provided in Yáñez-Bouza (in prep.a).

[15] Differences in the length of texts have been allowed for by normalising the figures per 10,000 words.

[16] The data in Table 2 is thus restricted to three types of clause in which there is, in principle, a free choice: (i) wh-relative clauses: ‘The film which I was talking about yesterday’ vs. ‘The film about which I was talking yesterday’; (ii) wh-interrogative clauses: ‘What time is the meeting at?’ vs. ‘At what time is the meeting?’; and (iii) constructions with topicalisation (read with emphasis): ‘Your behaviour I won’t approve of. Please, leave the room now’ vs. ‘I won’t approve of your behaviour. Please, leave the room now’.

[17] For each genre, the subperiod 1680-1740 comprises 12,000 words of running text, while the subperiod 1740-1780 comprises 8,000 words.

[18] His full discussion of the multidimensional/multifunctional approach to register variation is offered in Biber (1988:ch.6-7) and (1995:ch.7-8).

[19] Note, as well, the numerous guidebooks about the ‘art of letter writing’ in the century, particularly addressed to ladies, e.g. John Collyer (1755), Samuel Johnson (1758), or Dorothea Du Bois (1771).

[20] It must be acknowledged that the texts examined in the COPCB are mainly narrative or descriptive and include almost no dialogue.

[21] See also the analysis and interpretation of Dimension 2 ‘Narrative vs. Non-Narrative Concerns’ in, for instance, Biber (1988:135‑142,167, 1995:119,149-155,280-300).