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May 8, 2013
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May 3, 2013
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April 29, 2013
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April 26, 2013
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April 24, 2013
Jewish World Review
April 11, 2011
/ 7 Nissan, 5771
Where It's At
It was wholly a pleasure to receive your complaint about a headline over one of our stories in the Sports section the other day. The story was about Mike Anderson's early hesitation to come back from Missouri to coach men's basketball at the University of Arkansas, and the headline read:
"I realize that English evolves," you write, "but I still think this is wrong. Do you agree?"
Short answer: No.
The long answer comes in the form of a story I bet every kid from the South who's gone off to an Ivy League school has heard or told, probably both:
A new freshman from Arkansas is walking across Harvard Yard on his first day on campus.
"Excuse me," he asks an upper classman, "would you tell me where the library's at?"
The Harvard student, peering down his nose, replies: "Here at Harvard, we do not end sentences with a preposition."
"Oh," the kid from Arkansas says. "In that case, would you tell me where the library's at, jerk?"
I've cleaned up the punch line slightly for a family newspaper, but Gentle Reader will get the point.
If my answer-and-story isn't sufficiently definitive to settle the ever disputable question of whether to end a sentence with a preposition, here is the late great David Foster Wallace on the subject, carrying on in his ever-cataloguing, always dancing, sometimes maddening, regularly overwrought, and often enough obscure, wound-up and boring-beyond-words way, including those multisyllabic ones he dropped everywhere in the course of making a case.
What a ride through the American language he offered. He was a one-man verbal pyrotechnic.
Here is the crux of his comments on the fabled Avoid Terminal Prepositions rule. which really isn't one.
" ...First off, the Avoid Terminal Prepositions rule is the invention of one Fr. R. Lowth, an 18th-century British preacher and indurate pedant who did things like spend scores of pages arguing for hath over the trendy and degenerate has. The ATP rule is antiquated and stupid and only the most ayatolloid Snoot takes it seriously." (Snoot was his family's nickname for fanatics about proper English usage.)
"...Plus the apparent redundancy of 'Where's it at?' is offset by its metrical logic. What the at really does is license the contraction of is after the interrogative adverb. You can't say 'Where's it?' So the choice is between 'Where is it?' and 'Where's it at?' and the latter, a strong anapest, is prettier and trips off the tongue better than 'Where is it?' "
For me, the more rural Southern as well as Midwestern "Where's it at?" is preferable simply on the basis of euphony. It's got rhythm, it's got music, it's got the punch of punctuation at the end with that final at. Who could ask for anything more? You heard me what I said -- a phrase that beats the pallid alternative, "You heard what I said," all to heck.
I would trust the ear rather than eye in these matters. When in doubt, go for the phrase that rolls trippingly off the tongue. Speak the speech, I pray you, that sounds more like home -- and Shakespeare, too. Which is no mean combination for a fancier of the language.
Just remember it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, 'cause that's where it's at. Which sounds so much better to me than "That's where it is." Surely that impeccable linguist Louis Armstrong would agree.
Maybe my Southern origins are showing, but I've never had reason to hide them -- or my preference for the musical over the pedantic. Language, among other criteria, should not only communicate but sing and zing, not just explicate but exhilarate. (Snap your fingers at this point.)
What else can I say except be of good cheer? Which is not a bad guide to language -- or life.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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