Preposition stranding, sometimes called P-stranding, is the syntactic construction in which a preposition with an object occurs somewhere other than immediately adjacent to its object; for example, at the end of a sentence. The preposition is then described as stranded, hanging, or dangling. This kind of construction is found mainly in English and in some other Germanic languages or dialects. Preposition stranding is also found in languages outside the Germanic family, such as Vata and Gbadi (two languages in the Niger–Congo family), and certain dialects of French spoken in North America.
- An open interrogative often takes the form of a wh- question (beginning with a word like what or who).
- What are you talking about?[a]
- Relative clauses in English can exhibit preposition stranding with or without an explicit relative pronoun:
- This is the book that I told you about.[a]
- This is the book I told you about.
- Prepositional passives are the result of the movement of the object of a preposition to fill an empty subject position for a passive verb. This phenomenon is comparable to regular passives, which are formed through the movement of the object of the verb to subject position. In prepositional passives, unlike in wh-movement, the object of the preposition is not a wh-word but rather a pronoun or noun phrase:
Overzealous avoidance of stranded prepositions leads to unnatural-sounding sentences, especially when the preposition is part of an idiomatic phrasal verb, such as the following, apocryphally attributed to Winston Churchill. Note the verb is the phrasal verb "put up with", split to humorous effect:
- This is the sort of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.
There are verbal idioms in English that include more than one preposition, so it is possible to have more than one stranded preposition, for instance in the sentence
- "She was a fine manager, one who was looked up to by them all." [example from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language]
An extreme example of a sentence with five prepositions at the end:
- "A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boy says, 'What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of up for?'"
Opinions for and against
Preposition stranding was in use long before any English speakers objected to it. Many sources consider it to be acceptable in standard formal English. "Great literature from Chaucer to Milton to Shakespeare to the King James version of the Bible was full of so called terminal prepositions."
Mignon Fogarty ("Grammar Girl") says, "nearly all grammarians agree that it's fine to end sentences with prepositions, at least in some cases." Fowler's Modern English Usage says that "One of the most persistent myths about prepositions in English is that they properly belong before the word or words they govern and should not be placed at the end of a clause or sentence."
The proscription against preposition stranding in English was probably first created by the poet John Dryden in 1672 when he objected to Ben Jonson's 1611 phrase "the bodies that those souls were frighted from". Dryden did not explain why he thought the sentence should be restructured to front the preposition. Dryden often modeled his writing on Latin, which he considered concise, elegant, and a long-lived language to compare his writing. As Latin does not have sentences ending in prepositions, Dryden may have applied Latin grammar to English, thus forming the rule of no sentence-ending prepositions, subsequently adopted by other writers.
Other grammarians have supported the practice by analogy with Latin, such as Robert Lowth, who used the construction when he wrote in his 1762 textbook A Short Introduction to English Grammar that it was more suitable for informal than for formal English: "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 the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style." The proscription is still taught in schools at the beginning of the 21st century.
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There are two kinds of preposition stranding constructions in Dutch, both of which in fact involve the stranding of postpositions.
The first case involves directional constructions. A number of common Dutch adpositions can be used either prepositionally or postpositionally, with a slight change in possible meanings; for example, Dutch in can mean either in or into when used prepositionally, but can only mean into when used postpositionally. When postpositions, such adpositions can be stranded:
- wh-movement: Welk bosi liep hij ___i in?
- literally, Which foresti walked he ___i into?
- i.e., What forest did he walk into?
- short-distance movement: [...] dat hij zo'n donker bos niet in durft te lopen [...]
- literally, [...] that he such-a dark forest not into dares to walk [...]
- i.e., [...] that he doesn't dare walk into such a dark forest [...]
Another way to analyze examples like the first one above would be to allow arbitrary "postposition + verb" sequences to act as transitive separable prefix verbs (e.g. in + lopen → inlopen); but such an analysis would not be consistent with the position of in in the second example. (The postposition can also appear in the verbal prefix position: [...] dat hij zo'n donker bos niet durft in te lopen [...].)
Dutch prepositions generally do not take the ordinary neuter pronouns (het, dat, wat, etc.) as objects. Instead, they become postpositional suffixes for the corresponding r-pronouns (er, daar, waar, etc.): hence, not *over het (about it), but erover (literally thereabout). However, the r-pronouns can sometimes be moved to the left, thereby stranding the postposition:
- Wij praatten er niet over.
- literally, We talked there not about.
- i.e., We didn't talk about it.
- Waar praatten wij over?
- literally, Where talked we about?
- i.e., What did we talk about?
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Some regional varieties of German show a similar phenomenon to some Dutch constructions with da(r)- and wo(r)- forms. This is called a split construction ("Spaltkonstruktion"). Standard German provides composite words for the particle and the bound preposition. The split occurs easily with a composite interrogative word (as shown in the English example) or with a composite demonstrative word (as shown in the Dutch example).
For example the demonstrative "davon" (of that / of those / thereof):
- Standard German requires – Ich kann mir davon nichts leisten.
- literally, I can me thereof nothing afford.
- i.e., I can't afford any of those.
- Some dialects permit – Ich kann mir da nichts von leisten.
- literally, I can me there-[clipped] nothing of afford.
- i.e., I can't afford any of those.
Similarly for the interrogative word "woher" (from where / from what):
- Standard German requires – Woher hat Marie das Kleid bekommen?
- literally, Wherefrom has Marie the skirt gotten?
- i.e., From where has Marie got the skirt?
- Some dialects permit – Wo hat Marie das Kleid her bekommen?
- literally, Where has Marie the skirt from gotten?
- i.e., Where has Marie got the skirt from?
Again, although the stranded postposition has nearly the same surface distribution as a separable verbal prefix ("herbekommen" is a valid composite verb), it would not be possible to analyze these Dutch and German examples in terms of the reanalyzed verbs *overpraten and *vonkaufen, for the following reasons:
- The stranding construction is possible with prepositions that never appear as separable verbal prefixes (e.g., Dutch van, German von).
- Stranding is not possible with any kind of object besides an r-pronoun.
- Prefixed verbs are stressed on the prefix; in the string "von kaufen" in the above sentences, the preposition cannot be accented.
- and pronunciation allows distinguishing an actual usage of a verb like "herbekommen" from a split construction "her bekommen".
A few non-standard dialects of French seem to have developed preposition stranding as a result of linguistic contact with English. Preposition stranding has been found in areas where the Francophone population is under intense contact with English, including certain parts of Alberta, Northern Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Louisiana. It is found (but heavily decried) in very informal Quebec French. For example, Prince Edward Island French permits all three types of preposition stranding:
- Wh-movement: Qui est-ce que tu as fait le gâteau pour?
- Whom did you bake the cake for?
- Standard French: Pour qui est-ce que tu as fait le gâteau?
- Pseudopassives: Robert a été parlé beaucoup de au meeting.
- Robert was much talked about at the meeting.
- Standard French: On a beaucoup parlé de Robert au meeting.
- Relative clauses: Tu connais pas la fille que je te parle de.
- You don't know the girl that I'm talking to you about.
- Standard French: Tu ne connais pas la fille dont je te parle.
- Another, more widespread non-standard variant: Tu ne connais pas la fille que je te parle.
To standard French ears, these constructs all sound quite alien, and are thus considered as barbarisms or "anglicismes". However, not all dialects of French allow preposition stranding to the same extent. For instance, Ontario French restricts preposition stranding to relative clauses with certain prepositions; in most dialects, stranding is impossible with the prepositions à (to) and de (of).
A superficially similar construction is possible in standard French in cases where the object is not moved, but implied, such as Je suis pour ("I'm all for (it)") or Il faudra agir selon ("We'll have to act according to (the situation)").
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- In transformational approaches to syntax, it is commonly assumed that the movement of a constituent out of a phrase leaves a silent trace, in this case following the preposition:
Whati are you talking about ___i?
This bed looks as if it i has been slept in ___i.
This is the booki thati I told you about ___i.
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