Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

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5 Responses to “Off In Which They Were Whacking (Or, Getting Particular About Prepositions)”

  1. Bob said

    This entire discussion is something up with which I will not put!

  2. “That is something up with which I will not put. . .” is this another case of hypercorrection? Is the “up” really a particle?

  3. Neal said

    Yes, this is definitely another hypercorrection. CGEL (p. 287) analyzes put up with as a verb+(intransitive preposition)+(transitive prepositional phrase) structure. Up is the intransitive preposition, or what I’ve called a particle. (They reserve the term particle for intransitive prepositions or a few other words that can go before or after a direct object, so in their view, beat someone up has a particle, but sign up has an intransitive preposition. ) With is the transitive preposition, or what I call simply a preposition, since I haven’t committed to the term intransitive preposition.

    So with all that said, if you didn’t want to end your sentence with a (transitive) preposition, you would say …with which I will not put up. This would still sound kind of funny, since put up with, as CGEL notes, is a somewhat “fossilized” form. But it sounds even funnier when you also front the up, which has no object, and is therefore not a (transitive) preposition.

  4. […] Take On You?! No, You Take On Me! If you didn’t like reading my last few posts, then you certainly won’t enjoy a posting from the Tensor from last November, about […]

  5. lavi said

    sir,

    i am preparing for mba entrance exam. iam not able to use “off” and clauses of “put”

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