February 4, 2016

A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are some slogans up with which I will not put.” Obviously, with a name like Arrant Pedantry, I couldn’t let that slogan pass by without comment.

The slogan is obviously attempting to follow the old rule against stranding prepositions. Prepositions usually come before their complements, but there are several constructions in English in which they’re commonly stranded, or left at the end without their complements. Preposition stranding is especially common in speech and informal writing, whereas preposition fronting (or keeping the preposition with its complement) is more typical of a very formal style. For example, you’d probably say Who did you give it to? when talking to a friend, but in a very formal situation, you might move that preposition up to the front: To whom did you give it?

This rule has been criticized and debunked countless times, but even if you believe firmly in it, you should recognize that there are some constructions where you can’t follow it. That is, following the rule sometimes produces sentences that are stylistically bad if not flat-out ungrammatical. The following constructions all require preposition stranding:

  1. Relative clauses introduced by that. The relative pronoun that cannot come after a preposition, which is one reason why some linguists argue that it’s really a conjunction (a form of the complementizer that) and not a true pronoun. You can’t say There aren’t any of that I know—you have to use which instead or leave the preposition at the end—There aren’t any that I know of.
  2. Relative clauses introduced with an omitted relative. As with the above example, the preposition in There aren’t any I know of can’t be fronted. There isn’t even anything to put it in front of, because the relative pronoun is gone. This should probably be considered a subset of the first item, because the most straightforward analysis is that relative that is omissible while other relatives aren’t. (This is another reason why some consider it not a true pronoun but rather a form of the complementizer thatthat is often omissible.)
  3. The fused relative construction. When you use what, whatever, or whoever as a relative pronoun, as in the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, the preposition must come at the end. Strangely, Reader’s Digest once declared that the correct version would be “I Still Haven’t Found for What I’m Looking”. But this is ungrammatical, because “what” cannot serve as the object of “for”. For the fronted version to work, you have to reword it to break up the fused relative: “I Still Haven’t Found That for Which I’m Looking”.
  4. A subordinate interrogative clause functioning as the complement of a preposition. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language gives the example We can’t agree on which grant we should apply for. The fronted form We can’t agree on for which grant we should apply sounds stilted and awkward at best.
  5. Passive clauses where the subject has been promoted from an object of a preposition. In Her apartment was broken into, there’s no way to reword the sentence to avoid the stranded preposition, because there’s nothing to put the preposition in front of. The only option is to turn it back into an active clause: Someone broke into her apartment.
  6. Hollow non-finite clauses. A non-finite clause is one that uses an infinitive or participial form rather than a tensed verb, so it has no overt subject. A hollow non-finite clause is also missing some other element that can be recovered from context. In That book is too valuable to part with, for example, the hollow non-finite clause is to part with. With is missing a complement, which makes it hollow, though we can recover its complement from context: that book. Sometimes you can flip a hollow non-finite clause around and insert the dummy subject it to put the complement back in its place. It’s too valuable to part with that book doesn’t really work, though It’s worth killing for a love is at least grammatical. It’s worth killing for this love is better, but in this case A love worth killing for is still stylistically preferable. But the important thing to note is that since the complement of the preposition is missing, there’s nowhere to move the preposition to. It has to remain stranded.

And that’s where the Deadpool tweet goes off the rails. Rather than leave the preposition stranded, they invent a place for it by inserting the completely unnecessary relative pronoun which. But A love for which worth killing sounds like caveman talk, so they stuck in the similarly unnecessary is: A love for which is worth killing. They’ve turned the non-finite clause into a finite one, but now it’s missing a subject. They could have fixed that by inserting a dummy it, as in A love for which it is worth killing, but they didn’t. The result is a completely ungrammatical mess, but one that sounds just sophisticated enough, thanks to its convoluted syntax, that it might fool some people into thinking it’s some sort of highfalutin form. It’s not.

Instead, it’s some sort of hideous freak, the product of an experiment conducted by people who didn’t fully understand what they were doing, just like Deadpool himself. Unlike Deadpool, though, this sentence doesn’t have any superhuman healing powers. If you ever find yourself writing something like this, do the merciful thing and put it out of its misery.

Grammar, Usage 16 Replies to “A Rule Worth Giving Up On”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


16 thoughts on “A Rule Worth Giving Up On

    Author’s gravatar

    The obvious winner: Winston Churchill. “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.”

      Author’s gravatar

      The name of this blog comes from one version of that joke, as I explain on the about page.

    Author’s gravatar

    I suspect this was a simple typo to omit the word “it”. Any thought beyond that is probably overthinking what they were doing.

      Author’s gravatar

      Deep analysis of grammar and usage is sort of the name of the game here. Typo or not, I thought it was a good opportunity to dig into the rule and explain why it doesn’t always work. If that’s not for you, that’s fine.

        Author’s gravatar

        And, of course, even if it is just a typo, it’s still worth exploring why even the supposedly correct version is such a terrible construction.

    Author’s gravatar

    Okay, now I’m probably all wrong here, and if I am please say why, but what’s wrong with, “A love worth killing for”? By the way great post.

    Author’s gravatar

    Okay, now I’m probably all wrong here, and if I am please say why, but what’s wrong with, “A love worth killing for”?

    Nothing. That’s the point. Well, there’s nothing really wrong with it, anyway. Some people who were taught never to end sentences with prepositions might object to it, but there’s no real way to fix it. You could write “A love for which it is worth killing”, but that’s a mess—far worse than the supposed problem it’s trying to avoid.

    By the way great post.


    […] Another classic silly English “rule” is the sanction against ending a sentence with a preposition. Jonathon Owen unpacks an example from the now-infamous Deadpool marketing campaign. I suspect the pompous-sounding example was tongue-in-cheek, but Owen’s thorough analysis is well worth a read either way. (Arrant Pedantry) […]

    Author’s gravatar

    I know I’m late to the party here, since the post and all of the other comments are a few months old now, but I just wanted to speak up for the “Deadpool” marketing team. Considering the nature of the movie itself and especially the nature of the other marketing choices, I think the slogan was intentionally stilted and awkward. That doesn’t really affect the substance of your post, which essentially used the slogan as a jumping-off point to discuss the non-rule about stranding prepositions. I’m just responding to the implication that the “Deadpool” team didn’t know what they were doing or that they didn’t do it intentionally – that they “went off the rails.” I believe that “off the rails” is where they fully intended to be.

      Author’s gravatar

      That’s a very fair point. I’m not very familiar with Deadpool, but from what I’ve heard, I can believe it was intentional. I probably should have said that that was where it went off the rails grammatically. But you’re probably right that that’s where they intended to be.

    Author’s gravatar

    It seems to me that they started with “a love which is worth killing for” then unstranded the preposition.

      Author’s gravatar

      Right, but the unstranded form is still ungrammatical.

    Author’s gravatar

    I found this site mere moments ago; I feel as if I’ve come home. Thank you.

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