Propriety & usage

An irate parent called the school office this week. In her most recent newsletter, his daughter’s teacher had ended a sentence with a preposition. He told the office he was going to take the matter up with the school board.

The young teacher’s principal confirmed to her that she had erred. The teacher was pretty upset about it, Victoria said.

I was indignant. I asked Victoria to write an email to her teacher friend for her to share with her principal, her school board, and any other inquisiting body this parent and I could imagine. When Victoria wasn’t writing the email to my liking, I took the laptop from her and included this quote from Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

. . . recent commentators – at least since Fowler 1926 – are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety. Fowler terms the idea a ‘cherished superstition.’ And not only do the commentators reject the notion, but actual usage supports their rejection. (763)

Acknowledging her email’s sudden shifts in tone, Victoria explained at the email’s end that I had written its middle portion.

The teacher told Victoria the next day that the email had made her feel a lot better.

Are these the moments I live for? As a former quasi-fundamentalist, I’m pretty sensitive to the bad effects of a rules-oriented approach to spirituality. Maybe someone who equates a mastery of the often-whimsical rules of grammar with propriety pushes my buttons, too.

Webster thinks that Dryden first came up with the no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-clause rule. Dryden described it as a modern rule superior to what had come before – preposition-trailing clauses and sentences stretching from Old English clear through Shakespeare. Dryden’s rule eventually infested three of those popular, powerful, nineteenth century American textbooks. “The topic entered the general consciousness through schoolteachers, and, as we have seen, it persists there still” (764).

What did the teacher’s impropriety signify to the parent? Evidence of moral relativism? A lack of rigor in today’s public education?

This year, I feel the strongest tug ever between good writing instruction and the strictures of public education. The stakeholders – the parents, the administration, the government, the kids, the teachers – all expect certain things, and it is impossible for a teacher to change that. Good teaching is a subversive act, I’ve heard, but can’t we refabricate all of society to make it somewhat less so?

The night after our email, I attended Warren’s back-to-school program. His civics teacher handed us a short introduction, each paragraph of which included a different species of punctuation error. “God,” I thought. “American public education.”

Posted October 3, 2010.