Ending Sentences Prepositionally

Originally composed June 3rd, 2012

The following is an excerpt from the prayer spoken by the presbyter in liturgy after the Lord’s prayer:

And we most humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. – 1928 Book of Common Prayer

Now, a semi-colon indicates, grammatically, a period in many cases, with two independent clauses. The wording of the second clause makes it feel like a dependent clause, as if it is “through Jesus Christ our Lord” that we have been prepared to “walk in.” However, taken by itself, the second clause is, in fact, a complete sentence: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end.” In fact, “all honor and glory” are the subjects, the “nominatives,” of the sentence, and the predicate is “Jesus Christ our Lord.” It would be worded this way, in modern usage:

All honor and glory be to Jesus Christ our Lord, with thee and the Holy Ghost. There’s something interesting going on with “through” and “world without end” – one could maybe construe that through Jesus, and by the glory of His Triune Glory, there exists a world without end. However, that is not the sense it lends itself to in context, because of the whole sentence – instead, through is best understood as an extension of “thou has prepared” – it is through Jesus Christ that our heavenly Father assists us with His grace to continue in that holy fellowship, etc. Notice how complex this grammar is getting – as we go back to weave it into context, we find it all folding in together, a back and a forth, a weft and a weave, as the fabric of the faith is built into a condensed piece of truly beautiful prose. This is a prayer with a poet’s heart.

After church some Sunday, I couldn’t help but overhear my priest complain about the preposition closing “us to walk in.” Now, I could be mistaking the place, but this is the prayer I associate that line with, and he is correct – since it is a semi-colon, it ordinarily indicates a grammatical shift into an independent clause connected to the previous independent clause. The weight of everything preceeding and the grammar of the closing clause makes it feel as if the “Through Jesus Christ…” line is a continuation, but even then, if we were following the “prepositions cannot end sentences” rule, it would still be wrong. The line, under that rule, ought to be, “in which thou hast prepared us to walk.”

Of course, it is a big debate among English majors (who else) about whether this is even really a rule. The fact is that Old and Middle English didn’t have this rule – about one thousand and fifty years of “English” speakers would probably never think of it. The rule is born of Renaissance learned writers, who in considering the neatness of Latin wanted English to be similarly neat, and so came up with this rule. There is some practical sense to it – it can create syntactical confusion. This is especially true in early modern and Modern English, which has almost entirely dropped the inflected system, so that word order is extremely important to an English sentence’s coherence. And in fact, my discussion above indicates the self-same confusion – because of “in,” it feels as though the independent clause following is a continuation (which is also assisted by the rather complex syntax of what follows).

Now, being something of a curmudgeon myself, I like following the rules and teaching them concisely. A crisply, well written sentence is not the most important thing in the world, but it is still a nice thing. That prayer, to put a fine point on it, is not crisply written, but it is written, I think, with a great deal of linguistic sagacity. Of course, first of all, it is written more in the style of archaic Modern English, which contributes to its complexity. But the sense of it, however sophisticated, is actually powerful precisely as it is written.

First, I submit a paraphrase of C.S. Lewis: Just as Shakespeare might break a grammatical rule to increase the beauty of a poem, God might break a universal law to heighten the beauty of the universe. Notice this line from Shakespeare: ” We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” This line is spoken by Prospero in The Tempest. One could regard this as an error. One could instead say “We are such stuff as on which dreams are made.” Now, in some cases such an ending may feel incomplete – we might confuse the next word for the “on” intented, especially if there is a noun that often takes the “on” preposition, like “table” for example. One might say, well, Shakespeare was going for beauty, not grammatical correctness. But here’s the thing: it is grammatically correct. Do you know why?

Because that is not a preposition.

Looks and smells like one, I know, but the English language is a tricky rabbit. See, actually the direct object of the sentence, “such stuff,” is a predicate nominative, which means it is the same as the subject – it is a sentence where the whole content is about the subject of the sentence. It is about “we,” whomever Prospero is referring to here (probably all of humanity, I guess). So what does that make “on”? Well, if the preposition is a predicate nominative, then “as dreams are made on” is actually functioning as an adjective. Now, there is a certain sense in which all prepositions function as prepositional adjectives. “He drove the car over the bridge,” for example, technically uses “over the bridge” to explain how he drove the car, but look at this: “He drove the car the bridge over.” Now we can try and get some sense out of that, but it really won’t do. This is the situation where ending a sentence in a preposition is bad, because it really jars the sense of what is being said, because the preposition is not really acting as a preposition of the noun per se.

“Okay,” I can hear you mumbling, “Enough with the grammar lesson.” Well, the point is that in Shakespeare’s line, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” everything after “as” is acting as the noun’s adjective per se, or in other words, it is making a grammatical attribution, as well as a contentful attribution, to the subject “We.” “On,” therefore, is operating as an adjective, or possibly even an adverb of “made,” in a way that is grammatically more essential to the noun than if stated otherwise. This is why it is correct, whereas “He drove the car the bridge over” is bad, because it is syntactically making a comment about the ontology of the car, which makes no sense.

Okay, back to the line in the prayer that seems to be breaking our “rule” about prepositions:

And we most humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.

So we can either read this passage as breaking grammatical rules to produce good content, or we can argue that “in” is not operating as a preposition simpliciter. We are continuing in that holy fellowship “as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” Notice the difference: I walk in the store, verses As a creature, I use my legs to walk with. The one, accidental, the other, substantial. All such good works in which thou hast prepared for us to walk, accidental – prepositional simpliciter. Or, do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in. You might take “in” here as an adverb of “walk” or an adjectival phrase with “to walk in” – it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same. The sense here is not of something you do, but as something you do. It’s the difference between walking through the store, and walking beside your wife for your whole life.

Above, I mentioned that Shakespeare’s sentence is a self-reflective sentence – the purpose of the sentence is to say something about its subject with the predicate it is related to. This is the same sense of the sentence as a whole – while the sentence is about us supplicating God on the most superficial level to help us out, it is actually a statement of worship. Grammatically, the request for the Father’s grace is a request clothed, incarnated in praise of God’s nature, so that the act of asking that we be kept in the holy fellowship of the Lord is also the act of calling the Lord Holy. In speaking of our own reality, which is fleeting and dependent much like a preposition, we affix ourselves to the grammatical stability of all worlds, one Lord Jesus Christ, with whom the Holy Ghost and the Father be all honor and glory. Our way as Christians is not like walking in the store; our way as Christians is like being a creature that has legs to walk with. And what is for us a fixture, an adjective per se and not an adjective per accidens, is itself but a preposition dependent upon the real sentence – Father God, the Subject, Jesus Christ, the Predicate, and the Holy Ghost, the Verb, without which our stories could not be written. The language of this superficially simple prayer is, indeed, a wonderful prayer to glorify God with.

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