“Why can’t you end a sentence in a preposition?”
Marie’s question traveled across the room on the winged breath of Aether himself. There was chatter all around the room, thus I know the wind that gave movement to her words was not alone in its search for ears that would give room to the message it carried. Even then, it seemed the very emptiness of space made itself corporeal around the wind she had created and aided it to the ears of all, listening. The room fell silent, maybe not the gods but our perplexity gave power to what had been said. As soon as the high pitched sound in Marie’s voice marked the verbal question finished at the end of the sentence that was uttered we knew the queue for answers had been given. I don’t know about the others, but upon me the question had the effect of making me cease my translating. We all stared, in that study room, at the girl that had just realized she had asked a grammar question in a room filled to capacity with Latin and Ancient Greek Masters students. She shrugged, as if the silence had placed upon her small shoulders a weight too hard to bear and which needed to be cast off as if a mantle of despair.
“Just thinking out loud, guys.”
Too late. The query had been thrown to us, like stone to water, and ripples were to come back at the caster none the less. Later, I joked she should have known better; we laughed about it for a while. Now, John spoke first.
“It’s just an archaic rule for people who can’t let go of the past. In fact, I don’t think very many people really care for it these days.”
Some heads nod in approval, probably because John was the cranky activist amongst us and the one who thought he would learn Latin to help the masses understand the ancients better, not make things worse with old rules and old paradigms. I get a bit cold. John’s answer was the cookie-cutter version of a plausible explanation – maybe I will have to say something. But Alice chimed in next; I thought it funny she was so eager to answer the question she had sat up from her near-prone position between two chairs and turned herself towards Marie. She was serious, a bit too serious, fact which only added to the comedy of it all.
“There is a Latin sort of mold built into it. Those of us who still care for the ancient languages follow the example of Latin.”
She cast a glance over at John, who quickly gathered air – not a good sign, actually – and proceeded to formulate a response.
“Prescriptivism did indeed dictate that the Latin model should be followed. I agree that it is a Latin construction, but we do not speak Latin, we speak English, and as such the rule is an archaism that should be ignored (and most people do ignore it) by pretty much everyone around.”
Alice smiled, the left corner of her full lips slightly higher than the right. Her grey, hazel eyes reminded me of Athena. She would not, in character, leave this fight without getting in a good punch. She had a retort worth the enjoyment of the comeback, her lips revealed that much.
John looked confused.
“Around what, what?”
“Everyone around what?”
John realized what he had fallen into, he attempted a recovery.
“Around everywhere. Everyone around everywhere, as in here everywhere.”
Alice’s smile grew wider; her teeth, gleaming in the evening sun that shone through the titanic glass windows at the university library hinted the pleasure she took in making John eat the words with which he had dared offend her beloved Latin.
“Perhaps if you hadn’t ended that phrase in a preposition, as Latin prescribed and, in turn, 18th century prescriptivism, your meaning would have been much clearer.”
Marie seemed sorry she had ‘thought out loud’ at all. I smiled. When one is an expert at dead languages these discussions are common place. She should really not worry about it at all. Yet, there was a hint of red on her cheeks, perhaps she was embarrassed at the fact she had not foreseen this ridiculous discussion. I only realized I had stopped following the conversation between John and Alice when he turned to me and summoned me back from thought by tapping on the table around which we were all gathered. I turned my head towards him.
“I said, ‘what do you think’?”
I looked at Marie again, she was begging for a resolution to the conflict, her eyes had changed into the half-closedness that people in pain get when they suffer in silence. I looked at Alice too, she knew I knew she was right. I then looked at Mark, who was sitting diagonally from me, only so I could answer the question without looking at John directly. Only then could I really avoid his spear-like eyes.
“Well, I think Alice is more correct here. Latin uses prepositions to indicate, well, positions. Where we are, how we get there, they are an essential part of what a preposition is. Also, it is not just Latin, but also Ancient Greek that does this. In order to say that Latin was a bad example for English you would have to recognize that Ancient Greek was a bad example as well.
My ears confirmed what I thought I saw from the corner of my eye. John moved in his chair. Ancient Greek is his specialty.
So you have to consider that, perhaps, it is simply more proper to avoid leaving dangling prepositions at the end of sentences. If you have a question such as ‘what did you step on’ or ‘who are you talking about?’ just move your preposition to the beginning of the sentence and decline accordingly.”
“Come on, who the crap declines anymore?”
John was now visibly upset.
“We do! Seriously, John!”
Alice was aghast. I laughed and continued.
“‘On what did you step’ and ‘About whom are you talking’ are phrases that require just a little practice. Both in Ancient Greek and Latin prepositions are always, without exception, followed by a case, if that rule wasn’t absolute, we would never know what was going on, let alone translate properly.”
John sighed. Alice smiled. Marie seemed relieved. Mark hadn’t moved at all, he was busy translating Cicero and the many, many prepositions followed by cases that had, for the last 3000 years, dictated that it was irrational to leave lonely prepositional words at the end of sentences. It was then that he looked up, as if Zeus thunderbolt had struck, and said:
“I’m hungry, guess where I think we should eat at?”
The prescriptivists influenced by Ancient Greek and Latin laughed; then, we went to dinner.