I recently had a wonderful conversation with my mentor Howard Stein — also my Columbia University MFA Playwriting Chair and head of the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre Studies, and now lifelong friend — concerning the appropriateness of ending an English sentence with a preposition.
I was always taught to never end a sentence with a preposition because it was a rule and because it was “bad grammar.” Our preposition conversation started when Howard related a story of a family member who called to ask for an “official ruling” on whether it was proper to end a sentence with a preposition.
“Of course you can!” Howard exclaimed, “Language is arbitrary and ever-changing. Appropriate usage? We must always ask and then examine. We have no rules or regulations in English. Only guidelines. English is always modifying something. German and French never change — rules are the rules.”
Howard continued, “The phrase ‘put out the cat’ involves an adverb and a preposition in English, but in German the idea is one word, not two. Are the Germans right or are we? It depends on the common usage.
Take a look at the phrase “ain’t so,” Howard said, “‘ain’t so’ is a contraction for ‘cannot’ and ‘ain’t’ is a colloquialism and contraction for ‘am not’ and also for ‘is not’ and ‘are not’ and ‘has not’ and ‘have not’ in the common English language vernacular. In some dialects, ‘ain’t’ is also used as a contraction of ‘do not’ and ‘does not’ and ‘did not.’ It’s all fair, ‘ain’t” is alright and smartasses, don’t apply!”
“In 1720,” Howard said, “literary critic Richard Steele wrote that playwrights must only write sentimental comedies. Then, 40 years later, the Irish comedians appeared and changed drama with their humor. If things stayed the same, we’d never have had the rise of comedic drama.”
Howard then shared a Wall Street Journal story he’d read the previous week concerning “The Agreement of Any.” Howard said the article explained how “they” has replaced “he” in popular usage.
I suppose “they” is probably better than using the hamstrung and overwrought “s/he.” “They” never used to be right in any agreement context, but right now it is easier and cleaner to use “they” as a placeholder for meaning that doesn’t waste time trying to specify gender equality into every sentence.