June 20, 2002
Welcome To The Dark Side, Sarge

Sgt. Stryker is turning into a lit critter (though not the drunken animal kind):

I used to chafe at grammarians who felt it their mission in life to point out every grammatical error a written piece contained. I chafed, but I still took their advice.

Back in November 2001, this line (found in an email sent to InstaMan) would not have elicited a reaction:

These individuals did not know the contents of the letters nor whom the letters originally came from.

Now I'm not an expert on grammar. I don't know a gerund from a dangling participle, but this immediately jumped out at me as being odd. I thought to myself, "That should say, 'These individuals did not know the contents of the letters nor from whom they originally came.'"

I admit my hacked-up writing will never be featured on an academic test as an excerpted text, but I find it funny that I'm starting to notice this stuff.

I agree that it's a terrible sentence, but it seems to me there may be more than one way to fix it. Isn't the problem the mixing of formal and colloquial? I have no problem with either "who the letters originally came from" (more colloquial) or Sarge's "from whom the letters originally came" (more formal). But saying 'whom' and still ending the sentence with a preposition really grates on my nerves.

Similarly, I don't mind "who'd a' thunk" (very colloquial) or "who would have thought" (standard), but mixing the two with "who would have thunk" would really suck (colloquial). It would be like washing down grilled cheese sandwiches with single-malt Scotch, or making nachos with imported goat cheese, or serving chicken gizzards with caviar.

Two related jokes, both of them crude:

1. The first is from the movie Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. I'll have to quote it from memory, since it doesn't seem to be on the web:

FBI Agent: "This is the trailer those two boys were whacking off in."

FBI Supervisor: "What did I tell you about ending a sentence with a preposition?"

FBI Agent: "Uh, this is the trailer, uh, . . . off in which they were whacking."

2. My second joke is a variation on the one someone tells in Sarge's comments. I would say who (or is it whom?), but Sarge's site is down right now, and the Google cache doesn't seem to include comments. Anyway, here it is:

A clever young Alabamian arrives at Harvard as an entering Freshman. He's having trouble finding his way around campus on the first day, so he stops an upperclassman to ask for directions. (Please apply appropriate accents while reading: they're too hard to spell.)

Alabamian: "Excuse me, sir, can you tell me where the Harvard library is at?"

Upperclassman, sneering: "Here at Harvard, we do not end our sentences with prepositions."

Alabamian: "Well, sir, in that case, can you tell me where the Harvard library is at, asshole?"

I first heard this joke from a teacher in a graduate course on ancient Greek literature. Since this was in Virginia, Prof. K. may have made the young man a Virginian, not an Alabamian. He need not be a Southerner at all.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 20, 2002 11:41 PM

The problem is that most of those
little words we call "prepositions"
are actually part of a separable verb
or phrasal verb. There's no hard and
fast rule to distinguish a phrasal verb
from a single-word verb plus preposition;
you just have to try inverting
the phrase and see what happens.

Try getting the "preposition" out of
the end location in these:

The house was easy to take care of.
Clinton was hard to get rid of.

In such cases the verbs are take-care-of
and get-rid-of.

Posted by: ockham on June 21, 2002 01:19 PM

Nachos with imported goat cheese actually sounds pretty good. :-)

Posted by: Lynn on June 21, 2002 03:27 PM

Oh.... and I bet they'd taste good too. ;-)

Posted by: Lynn on June 21, 2002 03:28 PM

"Alabamian: 'Excuse me, sir, can you tell me where the Harvard library is at?'"

When I read that, I figured the retort would be, "Behind the at." That's what my momma told me when I ended "where is something" not only with a preposition, but an unnecessary "at" at that.

Posted by: Justin Adams on June 21, 2002 06:55 PM

I go with whatever sounds good with respect to the feel I'm after. Grammatical rules are for students.

Posted by: Jeff G. on June 21, 2002 11:09 PM

For Justin Adams:

But isn't putting in a useless "at" more or less the same kind of redundancy found in "exact same" and "whole 'nother"? I'm not saying it's good southern English, but it is southern English.

For another example, I knew a student at the University of Alabama who spent a summer at Oxford. She said that she and the locals had a linguistic mutual-admiration society: she loved to hear them talk and they loved to hear her talk. The one think that "freaked them out" was when she said that she "might could" do something or other.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on June 21, 2002 11:12 PM

I don't really see the problem with mixing a technically correct 'whom' with a (dubiously) incorrect terminal preposition myself, but perhaps that's just because, regardless of how formal or not I'm trying to be, I'm always pretty scrupulous about proper who/whom selection (too many years as a Latin student are to blame, I suppose).

I would suggest, however, that the bigger problem with the sentence, which sounds clunky however one slices it, is that there is a subtle double negative: "did not...nor." If my English grammar is not failing me, I believe that should be "did not...or" OR "know neither...nor."

Posted by: Evan McElravy on June 22, 2002 08:02 PM