Preposition Stranding and Prescriptivism in English from 1500 to 1900: A Corpus-Based Approach

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis investigates the history of preposition stranding in the Modern English period from 1500 to 1900, in close relation with the prescriptive movement in the tradition of English grammatical thought. The aim is to assess, or rather re-assess, thee ffect and effectiveness of the (late) eighteenth-century normative tradition on actual language usage. The methodology lies in the comparison of a precept corpus, i.e.meta-linguistic comments, with a usage corpus, i.e. actual language practice. On the one hand, this study will provide insightful observations into the attitudes towards and conceptualisation of end-placed prepositions in the course of the eighteenth century, the age of prescriptivism. Evidence comes from a self-compiled corpus of observations made on this peculiar usage as gathered from a miscellany of precept works (1700-1800). On the other hand, this thesis will trace the diachronic evolution of the use of preposition stranding before, during and after the age of prescriptivism,as collected in two renowned historical corpora, namely the Early Modern English section of the diachronic part of the Helsinki Corpus (1500-1710) and the British part of A Representative Corpus of Historical English Registers (1650-1899). The evaluation of the evidence from precept and the evidence from usage will shed new light on (a) the origin of the stigmatisation of preposition stranding (micro-level), and(b) the role of the normative tradition on language variation and change(macro-level). First, contrary to what has been taken for granted in the literature hitherto, I will demonstrate that the proscription against ending sentences with prepositions does not go back directly to the late eighteenth-century heyday of publication of precept works (e.g. Robert Lowth's grammar) but to the mid/late seventeenth-century incipient stages of the prescriptive tradition embraced with ideals of correctness and politeness; especially, to the grammarian and rhetorician Joshua Poole and to the literary writer John Dryden. Language change can thus be observed as early as the early eighteenth century. Secondly, I will provide evidence to show that late eighteenth-century precepts did exert an influence on the use of preposition stranding. The effect is manifest in contemporaneous writings and the effectiveness extends into the early nineteenth century. Nonetheless, it is only a temporary one, as the trends reverse in the late nineteenth century when prescriptivism was fading away. It will be argued that the eighteenth-century normative tradition did not trigger linguistic change but rather reinforced an existing trend.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • English historical linguistics
  • corpus linguistics
  • early modern English
  • late modern English
  • prescriptivism


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