Off In Which They Were Whacking (Or, Getting Particular About Prepositions)
Posted by Neal on September 5, 2007
Did you ever see Beavis and Butthead Do America? Here’s a scene from it that I liked. A disgruntled neighbor is complaining about Beavis and Butthead “whacking off” in his shed, and he says, after several self-corrections, something like:
That’s the shed … off in which … they were whacking.
The line shows the trouble you can get into if you try to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, but don’t know the difference between a preposition and a particle. A preposition, such as in, takes an object, as in for example, in the shed. Most prepositions can also be used as particles; the difference is that particles don’t take objects. Off is a particle in whack off. It can also be a preposition, as in He fell off the bridge, and just for completeness, here’s an example of in as a particle: Let’s listen in. When you ask a question or construct a relative clause involving the object of a preposition, that’s when you can end up with the sentence-ending prepositions some people like to avoid. I’ll use our Beavis and Butthead example, but to avoid confusion, I’ll replace whacking off with a synonym that doesn’t use a particle:
…the shed (that) they were masturbating in.
The object of in is missing, but is understood as part of the meaning of the entire phrase: something like “the unique X such that: (1) X is a shed and (2) they were whacking off in X.” To get rid of the stranded preposition, of course, you can use the relative pronoun which, and phrase it like this:
…the shed in which they were masturbating.
But there’s no way to get rid of a particle at the end of a sentence, short of replacing the verb-particle combination with a single-word alternative (such as masturbate for whack off), or taking the cheater’s way out and adding something irrelevant to the end of the sentence:
…the shed in which they were whacking off yesterday.
…the same technique used in the punchline, “OK, where’s the library at, asshole?”
Sometimes, though, it’s harder to tell whether a word is a preposition or a particle. That’s actually what I wanted to write about, but the post was getting so long that I decided to put this background on particles and prepositions into a post of its own. Next time, I’ll be talking about beating people up and running over them. Or beating up people and running them over, if I can say that.