Odd poem: ‘The Naughty Preposition’ by Morris Bishop

I lately lost a preposition:
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair.
And angrily I cried: “Perdition!
Up from out of in under there!”

Correctness is my vade mecum,
And straggling phrases I abhor;
And yet I wondered: “What should he come
Up from out of in under for?”

*****

Morris Bishop had a high regard for light verse: “The aim of poetry, or Heavy Verse, is to seek understanding in forms of beauty. The aim of light verse is to promote misunderstanding in beauty’s cast-off clothes. But even misunderstanding is a kind of understanding; it is an analysis, an observation of truth, which sneaks around truth from the rear, which uncovers the lath and plaster of beauty’s hinder parts.”

Bishop was an acknowledged master of rhyme and meter, but that doesn’t imply that he would be limited by the grammatical restrictions of the apparently well-educated. He employed and enjoyed common speech.

Now this may sound strange coming from me, someone who writes a blog dedicated to the expansion of formal verse, but many “rules of grammar” are garbage. To me, correct speech is whatever unambiguously communicates what the speaker intended. This is naturally aided by the use of predictable patterns of word usage, because we are a pattern-recognition species, and this in turn leads to “rules”; but these rules are really only “commonly used patterns”.

Similarly the forms of traditional verse are there because they are useful: rhythm guides and builds emotion; rhyme, rhythm and wordplay all create engagement and help memorisation. The forms are neither arbitrary nor sacrosanct. The formality is purely useful (and part of its use is creating fun). Grammatical rules and formal verse have that in common.

Winston Churchill is often cited as the author of a scribbled comment on someone “correcting” his grammar: “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.” But that joke appears to predate his involvement with the issue: there is a lengthy discussion of it here in the Quote Investigator.

English has particularly confusing and contradictory rules because of the blending of several waves of Germanic speakers (Anglo-Saxons, followed by Danish invaders and later Dutch merchants) overrunning the British (i.e. Celtic speakers with their complicated auxiliary verbs: “How did you do that?”), in turn being overrun by French-speaking conquerors supported by Latin-speaking priests. (I recommend John McWhorter’s ‘Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue‘.) It was this latest ruling class that was averse to (among other things) ending a sentence with a preposition. But that’s a natural and correct part of speech for a Dane to end with.

And I’m an Anglo-Dane.

T-shirt Slogan: ‘Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.’” by Ken Whytock is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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