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Prepositions are permissible, now — will English language be ok?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Move over, Oxford comma. There is some new grammar guidance about which everyone is talking - I mean, grammar guidance everyone's talking about. Here's how Merriam-Webster puts it. It is permissible in English for a preposition to be what you end a sentence with. Now, before you scurry over to your manual typewriter to clack out a letter telling us why Merriam-Webster is wrong, let's talk to an actual linguist about it. John McWhorter is a professor at Columbia University and a New York Times columnist. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Thank you so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How did you feel when you heard that Merriam-Webster was officially changing its position on this?

MCWHORTER: Well, to be honest, my impression has been that that, quote-unquote, "rule" has been very much on the ropes over maybe the past generation and maybe couple. I'm not sure how many people are still being taught that there's something wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition, even in writing. And I was happy about that because, of all of the blackboard grammar rules, that one has always been one of the most utterly ridiculous. And so for it to now be, you know, cast in black and white like this, good. This is the way it should be.

SHAPIRO: Do you know why it was ever taught in the first place - like, what its origins were?

MCWHORTER: It's the silliest thing. What it comes down to is that in the 1700s, there were certain brilliant but self-appointed, quote-unquote, "grammarians" who got it into their heads that they were going to codify what good English was. These are post-Renaissance people who have an idea of Latin and ancient Greek as the quintessence of language, along with maybe Sanskrit and Biblical Hebrew. They think that English should model itself after Latin. So people like Robert Lowth in 1762 decided that you're not supposed to do it in English either, although the famous example is that then he does it in a footnote where he's discussing it. He says it's something that English speakers are inclined to. Nobody knows whether that was a joke of his or not, but that's how silly all of this has always been.

SHAPIRO: There is a famous line that is perhaps falsely attributed to Winston Churchill. He allegedly said the preposition rule is the sort of pedantry - Professor McWhorter, will you say this with me?

MCWHORTER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Up with which I shall not put.

MCWHORTER: Up with which I shall not put. Yes. If he didn't say it, he should have.

SHAPIRO: And whether or not Churchill actually said that, the line can be traced at least as far back as the 1940s. So why do you think Merriam-Webster is so late to this party?

MCWHORTER: Well, I haven't spoken to anybody connected with it as to why that happens to have been proclaimed right now. But I think we're in an era where there is an increasing reality check going on about what we're taught is good and bad grammar. And I think that ideas as to what proper grammar is are becoming more flexible, because it's been forced by how we're increasingly accepting singular they, especially when increasing numbers of people would prefer to be called they.

SHAPIRO: So, like, language is always subtly changing in the background, but the changes recently may have been less subtle, more visible, and therefore we're more open to saying, hey; let's talk about language the way we're actually using it, as opposed to the way long-dead people said we ought to have been using it.

MCWHORTER: Exactly. And the thing with the prepositions is that where English gets that is Scandinavian languages like Danish. And the thing is, nobody tells any Danish person that there's something wrong with putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, so why can't we? You know, the world has always kept spinning. And so it's good for us to get over that arbitrary rule.

SHAPIRO: Before we say goodbye, I just have to tell you. When I was in the eighth grade, I was required to memorize all of the English prepositions in alphabetical order.

MCWHORTER: Oh, God.

SHAPIRO: And while I don't want to inflict that on you, I also fear I may never again have a chance to share this precious skill with NPR listeners.

MCWHORTER: Oh, you have to release it then.

SHAPIRO: You know, sometimes we end a segment with music. I thought we could kind of incorporate the two here. So with your indulgence - - abort, about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, out, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, but, by, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, outside, over, past, since, through, throughout, until, to, toward, under, underneath, until, up, upon, with, within, without. Linguist John McWhorter of Columbia University, thank you so much.

MCWHORTER: I'm so glad I never had to learn that. And that was spectacular. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Thank you (laughter).

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Oh, my God, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.