Dryden’s Rule, and the Grammar Nazis

Many writers in Restoration-era England felt that they had vastly improved the quality of domestic literature over that of their Tudor and Elizabethan forebears. The 17th century poet John Dryden opined, “the language, wit, and conversation of our age are improved and refined above the last… the absurdities which those poets [e.g. Shakespeare] committed [were due to] the want of education and learning.”

The education to which Dryden referred included a mastery of Latin, a language which he and his peers revered.

In Latin, one cannot end a sentence with a preposition.

Dryden, et al., said that it shouldn’t be allowed in English either.

Given his influence in learned circles, many listened to Dryden, including Bishop Robert Lowth, a fellow of the Royal Society of London and author of A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). An extremely popular textbook on the subject, Short Introduction included what came to be known as “Dryden’s Rule,” although even Lowth acknowledged that ending a sentence with a preposition was not only dominant “in common conversation [but also that it] suits very well with the familiar style in writing.”

Nonetheless, since Lowth, like Dryden, felt that “placing the preposition before the relative is more graceful,” and since those two literary giants were in favor of it, many adopted the style. By the dawn of the 20th century, it had taken on the characteristics of an inviolable rule, especially amongst elementary and high school teachers. And Grammar Nazis.

Not everyone bought into Dryden’s Rule, however. When Henry Fowler published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), he called Dryden’s Rule “a cherished superstition.”

I confess that, personally, I cringe when I see a preposition ending a sentence, and while almost all of us do it in our spoken communications, I still never allow a preposition to end a sentence in my writings – old habits die way too hard. But to highlight the ridiculousness of always adhering to this structure, I quote the late great Winston Churchill, hardly a slouch himself when employing the Queen’s English. He is quoted as having said, when asked about Dryden’s Rule, that “this is exactly the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

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