June 4, 2012 | Review Period

Separation of Preposition and Pronoun

English has special powers that Italian and other languages do not.

In Italian, you can’t separate your prepositions and pronouns. As Daniela Gobetti, author of Italian Pronouns and Prepositions points out, in Italian you would say, “Per chi stai comprando quel regalo?” In English, you could say, “Who(m) are you buying that present for?”

There are a lot of people running around who would freak out about that second sentence. They would say, “No! You cannot put a preposition at the end of a sentence! It is an abomination against all that is grammatically holy in the world!” 

A lot of those people, if you followed them around with a tape recorder, would put prepositions at the ends of their clauses and sentences all the time. This is a silly grammatical myth that bears little relationship to reality. In fact, one thing I specifically love about English is preposition mobility. Moving prepositions around gives me a sense of linguistic power and versatility.

On another subject: Gobetti says something I didn’t realize about the subtleties of costare, the Italian verb for “to cost. “Quanto fa?, she explains, “means that we purchased something and now we have to pay for it. It is mostly used in the singular.” So let’s say you have decided to buy oranges and they are handed to you by the clerk. You would ask, according to Gobetti, Quanto fa?

However, if you were looking at, say, a blouse, and you wanted to know the price, you would inquire, Quanto costa? If it were shoes, you would go plural: Quanto costano? So costare is the pre-shopping-commitment verb, is what I am gathering. 

Quanto costa?

Quanto costa?

Quanto costano?

Quanto costano?

Another thing she points out: you cannot eliminate the relative pronoun in Italian. As an example she offers this question: “Ti รจ piaciuto il vino che abbiamo bevuto ieri sera?” Che, which means “that,” cannot be deleted.

In English it can. Did you like the wine that we drank last night? Or: Did you like the wine we drank last night? 

Sometimes in English leaving a “that” out can create problems. I don’t think the following sentence rises to the level of a problem exactly, but I find it interesting: “Joan did not believe his claims were false.” 

For a tiny moment there, as your gaze strikes the spot between the word “claims” and “were,” you could maybe think Joan did not believe his claims, when in fact the opposite is true. I’m not saying the “that”-less version is wrong, exactly, but in a “that”-optional language, the possibility of murkiness exists. So I would be inclined to preserve the “that” there.

Comments (2)

Alex • Posted on Thu, May 09, 2013 - 12:00 am EST

That whole prepositions at the ends of sentences thing was started by some dude who thought that since you couldn’t do it in Latin you shouldn’t be able to do it in English either. But that’s a total apples-to-oranges thing. In the words of Winston Churchill, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, May 10, 2013 - 8:53 am EST

Yes, I love that Churchill story! I often cite it when I am teaching grammar classes. I have seen a couple of different versions of the quotation, but the version I recall coming across the most often alludes to “arrant pedantry,” as in, “That is the sort [or type] of arrant pedantry…”

As you probably know, the Latin issue applies to split infinitives as well.

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