Let's look at another myth that settled into the rule book of what constitutes proper writing and good style, thanks in large part to the classical scholar, John Dryden: Never end a sentence with a preposition. Happily, this myth was shown the door ages ago.
Most everyone knows by now that it is possible—and quite acceptable—to end a sentence with a preposition. Britain's formidable Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, was an excellent and prolific writer, and he soundly mocked the application of this “rule" when he stated that “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put. " This now famous quotation (and the numerous variations of it that have proliferated since) shows us that, as rules go, this one is really arbitrary and nonsensical if taken to the extreme. (At the risk of creating further confusion, I'll intrepidly add that in the expression to put up with, grammatically speaking, the preposition with is an adverb!)
But the problem is, though, once any prescriptive rule takes hold, it gets harder to dispute it. David Crystal, the world's foremost authority on the English language, takes that prescriptive mentality to task in his book The Fight For English and it is this very “rule" that he holds up as one of the most egregious ever. Egregious because it flew in the face of one thousand years of English usage. Shakespeare was certainly not constrained by such a rule. However, it was a rule that would become mighty handy if you wanted to set a discriminating dividing line between the classes. More than anything, that may explain its subsequent popularity. Where you placed your preposition said as much about who you were as what you knew. Gentry or peasant? Your dangling preposition was a decisive factor.
Today, the discussion around the dangling preposition is no longer about correctness but about taste. All we really have to consider is how it sounds, because even the guidelines about formal versus informal writing are blurred somewhat and are often a matter of an editor's or a publisher's taste.
If you are submitting an article to a magazine or a journal, the best advice I can give is this: read the submission guidelines to be sure, but read previous issues and familiarize yourself with the publication's tone and style as well. This will give you a clear idea of what is preferred: There are a number of issues the president is more flexible on might be just as acceptable as There are a number of issues on which the president is more flexible. You might see This is something I am opposed to as often as This is something to which I am opposed.
A simple rule of thumb, without getting too caught up in a discussion of grammar and parts of speech, is this: let “naturalness" be your guide. If it sounds awkward when you read it back, avoid it. Clearly This is a topic about which I never think sounds a little stilted. Write as one would naturally speak it or say it.
This doesn’t mean that we should always write like we speak. Not at all. Conversational English, and speech in general, is spontaneous and personal, while written English is governed by grammar and syntax. It's a good idea to think of it this way: rules are there to tell us how to properly interpret what is being expressed.
In other words, grammar rules are there to serve communication. Not the other way around.
Yet, there are occasions when a neatly tucked preposition sounds more elegant and will accurately reflect the grammar of the sentence…or the question. In fact, it is when we are formulating questions—both spoken and written—that the thorny topic of dangling prepositions returns with a vengeance. Consider these examples:
Which drawer did you find that file in? In which drawer did you find the file?
Which circumstances is it correct to file a complaint under? Under which circumstances is it correct to file a complaint?
Who did you speak to? To whom did you speak?
When deciding which is best, first define your audience and then the intended purpose of the material you are writing. In other words, consider the context and use your own discretion. This is a simple formula that will never let you down.
Far more offensive than any dangling preposition ever was (and with far more hilarious consequences) are those dreadful dangling modifiers, which we will look at in another article.
Victoria White is a professional editor and writer, and founder of The Virtual Writer (Canada) http://www.thevirtualwriter.ca Copyright 2007 Victoria White