Friday, December 5, 2014

Ending a sentence with it

A thoughtful student asked today about an alleged rule of writing: “Don’t end a sentence with it.” Whoever thought up the rule probably didn’t see the comedy in that sentence. I’ve been told of other such rules: many students come to college believing that they must never begin a sentence with and, but, or because. The it-rule though is new to me. I suspect that it is not widespread: Garner’s Modern American Usage makes no mention of it, not in its entry about it, not in its entry about superstitions.

I did find the following comment, in Richard Lauchman’s 25 Hiccoughs of Guidance that Ruin Writing Style:

How did this one ever get started? When I was in school, no one ever bothered to tell me that ending a sentence with “it” was wrong. I’ve never been able to learn the basis for this advice. It makes no sense to me.

But what I can report is that many people have heard this “rule” and thus shy away from writing We have received your proposal and will notify you after we review it. Instead, of course, they feel compelled to write We have received your proposal and will notify you after it has been reviewed. If they have managed to evade the superstition about repeating words but have been exposed to the idea that pronouns are taboo, they write Subject proposal has been received by this office, and notification will follow after said proposal has undergone review. When we read this sort of thing, we have no one to blame but ourselves. After all, for it we asked.
Reader, are you familiar with this rule? Have you heard of it?

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February 23, 2015: Here’s more evidence, if anyone needs it, that it is acceptable to end a sentence with it. From Joseph M. Williams’s Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (New York: Longman, 2003):
A sentence can end flatly if you repeat at its end a word used just a few words before, because the voice we hear in our mind’s ear drops off at the end of the sentence. You can hear that drop if you read aloud this sentence and the previous two sentences. To avoid that kind the flatness, rewrite or use a pronoun instead of repeating the word at the end of the sentence. For example:

A sentence will seem to end flatly if you use a word at its end that you used just a few words before, because when you repeat that word, your voice drops. Instead of repeating the noun, use a pronoun. The reader will at least hear emphasis on the word just before it.

[The words drops, pronoun, and before are in bold to mark emphasis.]
Not only is it acceptable to end a sentence with it : doing so can be the right thing to do.

The passage is missing from the 2010 tenth edition of the much longer Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. It may be missing from the 2013 eleventh edition too. No matter: it was and is acceptable to end a sentence with it.

[“Don’t end a sentence with it”: granted, it here doesn’t function in relation to an antecedent. But still. Lauchman Group offers writing workshops for people in the world of work.]

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January 19, 2016: I found my way to an influential source for this non-rule: Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners. With an Appendix, Containing Rules and Observations for Promoting Perspicuity in Speaking and Writing (1795). Murray (1745–1826) was a lawyer who in retirement began writing books of grammatical instruction, with extraordinary success: Bryan Garner notes that in the first four decades of the nineteenth century, Murray’s books sold more than fifteen and a half million copies.

Murray’s advice about writing is at times remarkably congenial. Here is an observation that might have inspired William Strunk’s exhortation to “Omit needless words”:


[The first rule promoting the strength of a sentence, is, to prune it of all redundant words and members.

It is a general maxim, that any words which do not add some importance to the meaning of a sentence, always injure it. Care should therefore be exercised with respect to synonymous words, expletives, circumlocutions, tautologies, the expression of unnecessary circumstances. The attention becomes remiss, when words are multiplied without a corresponding multiplication of ideas.]

But at other times Murray’s advice is less helpful. Here is the rule against ending a sentence with it:


[The fifth rule for the strength of sentences is, to avoid concluding them with an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word .]

An example follows:


[Even the pronoun it , should, if possible, be avoided in the conclusion: especially when it is joined with some of the prepositions; as, with it , in it , to it . We shall be sensible of this of the following sentence. “There is not, in my opinion, a more pleasing and triumphant consideration in religion, than this, of the perpetual progress which the soul makes toward the perfection of its nature, without ever arriving at a period in it . How much more agreeable to sentence, if it had been so constructed us to close with the word period !]

“Should, if possible, be avoided in the conclusion”: the rule is not absolute, and as David Crystal points out, Murray ends a sentence with it just two pages later. It must have been unavoidable, he might have said. In the sample sentence above, though, the problem lies not in the word it but in “words which do not add some importance to the meaning of a sentence”: in it , an unnecessary phrase, needless words. There was and is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with it , or with an adverb, or with a preposition. She threw the ball and I caught it. We danced gracefully. Where did that noise come from?

How strange and sad that a warning — not a prohibition — issued in 1795 should still haunt writers. In the last three months, at least 500 people have wondered or worried enough to visit this post.

[I found my way to Murray’s warning while reading David Crystal’s The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left (2006): “To maintain the ‘strength’ of sentences, [Murray] says, we must ‘avoid concluding them with an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word’ — by which he means (from the examples he gives) pronouns such as it .” I have reproduced the more legible text of Murray’s An English Grammar: Comprehending the Principles and Rules of the Language, Illustrated by Appropriate Exercises, and a Key to the Exercises (1808). In both English Grammar and An English Grammar, the rule appears in a discussion of sentence strength (“a disposition and management of the several words and members, as shall bring out the sense to the best advantage.” For the third passage, the earlier English Grammar has a semicolon after conclusion and the word more before especially .]

comments: 14

Zhoen said...

I remember it, along with not starting sentences with And, But, or Because, as a matter not of being wrong, but lazy or awkward. To be avoided, like using the same word over and over in a short space. A style issue rather than grammar. To be ignored if one is doing it as an intentional choice.

Chris said...

That sounds like one of the sillier grammar rules I've heard. I think we can all feel free to ignore it.

Robert "Anaerin" Johnston said...

I always have fun with these rules, usually with the sentence:

"And, of course, a preposition is something you should neither start, nor end a sentence with". Which, of course, breaks both it's own rules.

Frex said...

I wonder if this is related to how people commonly don't capitalize the verb "is" in a title?
I'm not sure, but I think it's because it's such a little word...
Maybe this rule is based on thinking "it", being so little, is a preposition [don't end sentences with,}?
--Frex = Fresca

Daughter Number Three said...

I have never heard this rule. I suspect Frex is right. The lower-casing of "is" within title case headings is one of the minor banes of my existence.

Michael Leddy said...

I wondered — and asked my student — if the teacher who gave out this “rule” was under the impression that it was a preposition. (I mean, who knows?) And the student said that prepositions too were banned.

Creating lots of don’t s for student-writers is a good way to ruin any possibility of finding pleasure of writing.

P.S.: Robert: And is a conjunction. But there too, students are told never to begin with one. Bryan Garner: “It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction cannot properly begin a sentence.”

The Arthurian said...

"But there too, students are told never to begin with one."

Gasp!

And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.

Michael Leddy said...

Very nice. The teachers who promulgate these rules are sometimes more ruthless than pirates.

Geo-B said...

I think that a class in high school maybe makes a common mistake, maybe like a lot of people don't know how to make paragraph breaks and turn in a bunch of one sentence paragraphs. So, the teacher says, for this upcoming assignment, there should be no one-sentence paragraphs. The teacher's trying to make a helpful suggestions, but that gets solidified in the student's mind as a rule. So, somehow, he carries in his mind the iron-clad rule: no one-sentence paragraphs.

Michael Leddy said...

True that. But many students have described rules that were absolute: never use I (instead: “It is observed that”), never repeat a word, and so on. The alternative would be to look at when it makes sense to say I, when repetition is useful, when it’s not, and so on.

A couple of years ago, I had a student who’d been required to make sure that every paragraph had an odd number of sentences, because odd numbers are more appealing (something about asymmetry). A lot of bad advice out there.

Elaine said...

That sounds pretty ridiculous--kind of overkill. As long as you know what the pronoun refers to (the antecedent being not too distant in time and space, so to speak) it makes perfect sense to end with 'it' whenever necessary.

The Fatal Errors in our Jr year HS English class were only four in number, and if you committed one, the grade was F and went down from there. (They were subj-verb disagreement, comma splice, and the like...real crimes, not misdemeanors.)

I love that one commentor made an its/it's error in his cogent and well-written note.

Daughter Number Three said...

I definitely was taught in high school English to never use "I" or "you." I specifically remember the teacher saying about the use of "you,", "Don't tell me what I think."

He was very fond of the use of the pronoun "one." (It is a pronoun in that example, right?)

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, at that rate, we would have to invent more letters. Sad to say, such errors are frequent.

DN3, yes, it’s a pronoun there. Bryan Garner calls it “the Overdone one.” The real trick is to explain to students that they can state ideas without an obligatory “I think,” “It is my opinion that,” “in this writer’s opinion,” and so on.

Anonymous said...

I break stupid rules, because so do I wish it.

Conflating the last four letters tells much of silly rules and their purveyors.