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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Grammar Question, of all things

   
Author Topic: Grammar Question, of all things
Fahrion Kryptov
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I just have a quick question, but it has been bugging me all morning, and I can't get a hold of anyone who can answer it for me.

Take the sentence, "The picture is pleasant to look at." It feels improper, but I can't figure out why, and I don't know what purpose "at" serves. Any help would be appreciated.


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axeminister
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I'm sure there's a technical reason. I don't know it. I'm not versed in the terms. (Although I should be. Someone buy me a grammar book for Christmas, eh?)

However, -at- ending this sentence is just wrong. It's good that you feel it, if not knowing why. Writing is playing by ear just as much as any instrument.

You could possibly put "upon" there, but I think what's missing is motivation. There's no character. This is being said in a vacuum. Who is looking at the picture?

Mary was pleased when looking at the picture.
Mary remembered good times when looking at the picture.
A warm feeling came over Mary when she saw the picture.

Plus, we love details. There's so many places in a MS where a detail would be better than a word.

He ran, out of breath, and stopped by a large tree to rest.
He ran, out of breath, and stopped by a large oak tree to rest. (You could probably remove the word tree from the 2nd sentence, if we already know he's outside, or in the woods.)

So, is picture the best word?

Mary had seen the Mona Lisa hundreds of times on TV or in magazines, but seeing it in person caused her emotions to stir. She felt a certain peace, like being home for the holidays; she felt safe.

Now, that may be too long for what the scene needs. You have to judge how much weight to give things based on the action around them. If this is Mary's first trip to a museum, this could be the change she's been looking for. You'll want to linger here for a while.

If she's visiting friends, and she likes the picture of a sunset they hung on their wall, yeah, it's pleasant. Not much emotion needed.

To sum up, what's missing from that sentence isn't the proper word at the end, but who feels pleasant by looking at the picture.

Axe


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Osiris
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Axe is correct in pointing out the inelegant nature of the sentence as constructed, in which it ends with a preposition.

From a grammar standpoint, however, it is correct, because you could not leave off the preposition and say 'The picture is pleasant to look'. Therefore, 'at' is essential for the meaning of the sentence.

The reason it feels wrong, to you, me and Axe, is we were taught that it was wrong by people who were taught the same thing. That is a myth.

Further explanation can be found here:

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/ending-prepositions.aspx

[This message has been edited by Osiris (edited October 11, 2011).]


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Fahrion Kryptov
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EDIT: Osiris, you hadn't posted when I typed this up. Thanks for your reply and the link. That helps a lot.

Oh, the sentence was intentionally oversimplified for illustration purposes. I could also have gone with such examples as:

He was looking for anyone to talk to.
They had a few things to pick up.
No matter which way the intrepid investigator held the mysterious paper, he simply could not make heads or tails of what he was looking at.

All of these have prepositions after the verb. Is it merely the nature of these verbs to have this trailing preposition, and if so, is it still grammatically correct? Or is the whole structure, as commonly used as it is, simply wrong?

[This message has been edited by Fahrion Kryptov (edited October 11, 2011).]


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axeminister
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A preposition.

Osiris, I'll send you my address. Grammar book in the mail with a bow?

Kidding.

I'm going with it feeling wrong because it feels wrong. Like hitting a wrong key.

Technically speaking a lot of things can be right, but if they sound wrong, reword them. Nuke the entire sentence if you have to. Rewrite it until it flows.

That's the beauty of this craft. You write what you want to express. You rewrite and find what you meant to say. You rewrite again until others understand.
The goal is for others to feel because of what you've written. That's when rejections turn into acceptances.

That's why I gave you such a long example above. More than you asked, yes, but perhaps still something new.

Here's the short version:

Mary felt pleasure looking at the picture.

Axe


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extrinsic
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"The picture is pleasant to look at."

"The picture" is the object of the preposition "at." A preposition takes an object.

"The picture," the object of the predicate "to look," is in subject position. Passive voice promotes an object to subject position. No actor of the action to look, no sentence subject, i.e., "Mary" as axeminister notes. "Is to look," to be auxilliary verb and main verb (infinitive) construction, also a clue to passive voice. Plus, a preposition oftentimes marks a passive voice sentence.

Wrong grammar? English usage dictionaries are ambiguous about the rightness or wrongness of passive voice usage and ending a sentence with a preposition. Prescriptive principles indicate both are grammatical vices, weak grammar. However, descriptive principles allow the potential for rhetorical virtue from artful, nonstandard usage. Also, somewhat artless descriptive usages frequently mark casual, everyday conversation, typically considered weak writing though.

"The," definite article.
"Picture," noun, object of the predicate and of the preposition.
"Is," auxilliary verb.
"Pleasant," adjective modifying "picture."
"To look," infinitive verb form.
"At," preposition.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited October 11, 2011).]


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Osiris
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Ha! Axe, you're looking at my grammar book right now (the internet).

I agree it feels wrong, but that is just because it isn't elegant. That wrongness can be used to a writer's advantage, though. You can use it in dialog to make a character seem a little 'common', for example.

quote:
That's the beauty of this craft. You write what you want to express. You rewrite and find what you meant to say. You rewrite again until others understand.
The goal is for others to feel because of what you've written. That's when rejections turn into acceptances.

Well said.


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MattLeo
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There's nothing wrong with the sentence "The picture is pleasant to look at," either grammatically or (in isolation) stylistically.

I suspect you may have had the "never end a sentence with a preposition" thing beaten into you, but the logic of that spurious "rule" doesn't even apply here. "At" is part of the phrasal verb "look at", therefore grammatically the sentence ends in a verb.

The infinitive phrase "to look at" is a "verbal" -- a phrase built out of a verb that can function as an adjective or adverb. In this case it is an adverb modifying the adjective "pleasant".

Here's the sentence broken down:

[1: The picture][2: [3: is] [4: [5: pleasant] [6: [7: to] [8: look at]]]

1: Noun
2: verb phrase
3: verb "to be"
4: adjective phrase
5: adjective
6: verbal (functions as adverb modifying 5)
7: preposition
8: phrasal verb (object of 7)

Stylistically the sentence is passive. In isolation that is neither here nor there, but too much of that sounds wishy-washy.


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extrinsic
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The nominal object of a prepositional-type phrasal verb always follows the phrasal verb, to which "The picture is pleasant to look at" doesn't prescriptively conform.

Pleasant to look at, the picture depicted an idyllic pastoral scene.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited October 11, 2011).]


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MattLeo
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extrinsic -- citation please? I'm not sure your rule makes any sense.

Your example does not by any means illustrate your point: "Pleasant to look at, the picture depicted an idyllic pastoral scene."

Here "to look at" is a verbal (i.e. infinitive) functioning as an adjective modifying "pleasant". The preposition "at" has no direct grammatical connection to "the picture" at all and might as well go at the end of the sentence. In any case I think the awkwardness of this example casts doubt on the validity of the rule. Note you've had to change the example in order to even apply the putative rule; a direct application results in this: "Pleasant to look at, the picture is." It's grammatical in archaic, English-is-a-Germanic-language sense, but awkward.

I suppose some phrasal verbs must take direct objects, just the way "lay" must take a direct object. But it's not clear to me that *all* phrasal verbs formed with a preposition must do so. The original example makes my point. It does not seem to me to be ungrammatical.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited October 11, 2011).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Okay, as I understand it, "never end a sentence with a preposition" is another one of those rules imposed by people who came up with grammar rules for English based on the grammar rules of Latin. (Another is "never split an infinitive" and therefore "To boldly go where no one has gone before" breaks that rule. The thing about that rule is that Latin infinitives are one word instead of two, so you can't "split" a Latin infinitive. Therefore that rule is silly for English grammar because you can split English infinitives.)

Back to ending with a preposition. I don't know why that rule came to us from Latin, but the "correct" way to avoid the preposition at the end of the sentence is to insert "which" or "with which" or some other klunky pseudo-object for the preposition to refer to. (Aha! I just did it! 50 lashes with a wet noodle!)

So, can the following really be more elegant?

quote:
The picture is that at which it is pleasant to look.

I believe Winston Churchill is credited with an even more inelegant example of bending over backwards to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition:

quote:
Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.

While I agree with axeminister about the example being passive (no subject), it's a fine example of a passive sentence that works perfectly--who looks at the picture is TOTALLY IRRELEVANT!

And, I submit that ending a sentence with a preposition is as elegant as it needs to be.

[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited October 11, 2011).]


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extrinsic
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Linguapress covers the basics of (1) phrasal verbs, (2) prepositional verbs, and (3) phrasal-prepositional verbs.

http://linguapress.com/grammar/prepositional-verbs.htm

"Pleasant to look at, the picture depicted an idyllic pastoral scene." Is a sentence with a dependent prepositional verb as adverbial or participial clause modifying the subject of the main clause, the picture, which is also the object of the prepositional verb. The gerund form is, Pleasant looking, the picture depicted an idyllic pastoral scene.

Regardless, an underlying dissonance of the several examples is they are diegesis, or recital, the dread tell, not mimesis, or imitation, the much favored show. As soft or strong exclamation thought or spoken, though, "The picture is pleasant to look at" works fine. Otherwise, stronger writing would paint the picture rather than just say that it is pleasant to look at.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited October 11, 2011).]


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philocinemas
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quote:
The picture is pleasant to look at.

I agree that this is passive voice - the object of the preposition, "at", is the subject of the sentence.
I do not believe that "to look at" is a phrasal verb, because "at" does not change the meaning of "look". As I understand phrasal verbs, the preposition is necessary for the meaning of the verb.
Although it is not "incorrect" to end a sentence with a preposition, I believe it is weak structure and should be avoided. At the same time, the excessive wording of adding "which" clauses should be avoided in this instance.
In addition, you are using a linking verb, "is", which increases the weakness of the sentence.

If you want to keep the basic meaning and form, this would be the best way to word the sentence:

"It is pleasant to look at the picture."

This construction does not solve the weakness of the sentence, but it does resolve the passive voice and the prepositional ending.

I based these comments upon accepted rules for narrative prose, not for dialogue. In dialogue, just about anything goes.

[This message has been edited by philocinemas (edited October 11, 2011).]


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Fahrion Kryptov
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Okay, to sum this all up:

This is an example of a phrasal verb, which is a verb phrase that includes a preposition or adverb. It is precisely because of such constructs that the rule to never end a sentence with a preposition is unrealistic. This type of verb phrase does draw its roots from Latin, in which verbs are often combined with prepositions to give a slightly different meaning. Translating this to English usually results in the base verb and the preposition it was combined with, which now comprises the verb phrase. Furthermore, being in infinitive form, it has neither tense nor voice. It's purpose in this sentence is adverbial, modifying the adjective "pleasant". As thus, it is not passive voice at all. Passive voice would be "The picture is looked at as pleasant." which is quite another sentence altogether.

Thanks all for your help!

PS- My English classes were pretty abysmal, so I learned pretty much all I know about English from Latin class and what I taught myself as I wrote. Because of the similarity between English and Latin grammar, I sometimes forget the idiosyncrasies of English.

[This message has been edited by Fahrion Kryptov (edited October 11, 2011).]


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philocinemas
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Fahrion, I must disagree.

quote:
The picture is pleasant to look at.

This is no different than saying: The park is fun to go to.

Which, may I add, is atrocious.

My first question is: Does "to look at" modify "picture" or "pleasant". "To look at" refers to the picture, not pleasant. I can't think of any way that "to look at" could modify pleasant. I looked at "It is fun to walk" - "to walk" refers to "It", not "fun". Then it dawned on me - "It" is a pronoun referring to "to walk". You could just as easily say, "To walk is fun," and conserve the original meaning. I questioned the original analyses of this sentence, but I couldn't figure out why. Here it is - this is the absolute correct way to write this sentence:

quote:
To look at the picture is pleasant.

My problem with the original ending is that this is not a phrasal verb (THE MEANING IS NOT CHANGED BY "AT"). It is a "Where did he go to?" ending, which makes the preposition completely unnecessary. The problem with your sentence is that you are dividing an infinitive that should be functioning as the subject - that is why it feels passive, whether it is or not. You could also say: The picture, to look at, is pleasant. Here, "to look at" still modifies picture, and is more correct than the original, but still suffers from the dangling preposition, "at".

This is my interpretation, and if anyone would like to prove me incorrect, then please do so - no offense taken. However, this is how I understand the difficulty with this construction.


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extrinsic
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Try this: Viewing the picture is pleasing.

Still passive voice though. No subject actor of the gerund verb "viewing."

And diegsis. What makes the picture pleasant viewing for a viewpoint persona: narrator or character? Its setting? Its subjects? Its event? Its theme? Its technique? Its color scheme?


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KayTi
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Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.


(I've heard that attributed to Churchill, but I just think it's funny no matter who said it.)


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mythique890
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quote:
This is no different than saying: The park is fun to go to.

Which, may I add, is atrocious.


That depends on your dialect. In the Midwest, for example (and other places, but that is the dialect I speak), this is a totally acceptable construction outside of a prescriptive grammar class. So is the original "The painting is pleasant to look at." Yes, the phrases are not elegant and probably shouldn't be used in elegant writing. However, they are the norm for informal spoken English in much of the U.S.

[This message has been edited by mythique890 (edited October 12, 2011).]


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philocinemas
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My comment from earlier in thread:

quote:
I based these comments upon accepted rules for narrative prose, not for dialogue. In dialogue, just about anything goes.


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Fahrion Kryptov
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philocinemas- That does make sense. "To look at the picture is pleasant." What had been considered the subject is actually the object of the preposition, and the infinitive is the subject.

Written in this form, the gerundive form seems more natural than the infinitive, making it "Looking at the picture is pleasant." Going with extrinsic's gerund "view", however, makes things a little confusing again. "Looking at the picture" and "Viewing the picture" mean exactly the same thing, but while "looking" is modified by a prepositional phrase, "viewing" is not. "Viewing is the subject of the sentence, and "the picture" is object of the "viewing". "To view" means literally "to look at" (I verified with dictionary.com), which makes me wonder if the first view wasn't right in considering "to look at" a phrasal verb. Considering it a phrasal verb maintains the exact sentence structure for both sentences. Similarly, replacing "to view" with "to look at" in the original sentence structure maintains the meaning without having the dangling preposition. "The picture is pleasant to view."

Because of this, I completely agree with philocinemas' rearranging of the sentence and considering the infinitive the subject, but not about the preposition and its purpose.

I still don't think this is passive voice, though.

I certainly wasn't expecting such a response from this. I suppose I should have expected the criticism of the sentence in that I am telling (not showing) and not even telling anything useful. All things considered, it's a pretty terrible sentence. But it's not a sentence I think I have ever used in anything I've written. It was just an example.


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extrinsic
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Passive voice is when the doer of the action of the predicate is not in subject position.

Active voice: The ball rolled downhill.
Passive voice: The ball was rolled by Liana.

The passive example is the classic one: object of the action, to be auxilliary verb, main verb, preposition, subject-doer of the action.

"Viewing the picture is pleasing," has neither doer of viewing nor feeling pleased.

Noting that "The picture is pleasant to look at" is a tell is not meant to be a negative evaluation, more so locating a dissonance which indicates an opportuinty to revise for stronger writing.


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philocinemas
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quote:
Because of this, I completely agree with philocinemas' rearranging of the sentence and considering the infinitive the subject, but not about the preposition and its purpose.

Okay, having a few hours to sleep on it, I will concede that "to look at" is a verbal phrase. However, I still find it clunky and unnecessary in lieu of "stronger writing" as extrinsic has stated. I also stand by the fact that my example - The park is fun to go to - is atrocious.

That being said -

quote:
I still don't think this is passive voice, though.

Even though infintives do not have tense or voice, verbals do have tense and voice.
http://folk.uio.no/hhasselg/terms.html#verb
See: "He used to be watched." (and others)
However, I will agree that your original example is technically not passive. For something to be passive, there needs to be three elements:

1 - The subject is being acted upon.
2 - There will be a form of "be" followed by the past-participle of another verb.
3 - If the real subject is included, it will be preceded by a preposition, like "by".

"The picture is pleasant to look at," although not very pretty, is lacking the past-participle of a verb, unlike the passive verbal phrase above. As it stands here, it is a subject with an adjective modifyer and a misplaced infinitive phrase. However, I do not belive it is passive.

[This message has been edited by philocinemas (edited October 12, 2011).]


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axeminister
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OK smart people... You sure have a firm grasp of the parts of speech. Now enter my contest and prove yourselves equally creative.

Axe


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MattLeo
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Extrinsic -- I have no doubt you've put your finger on why this sentence sounds wrong. The phrasal verb "look at" is a transitive verb and it if you look at it closely enough it starts to feel wrong because it doesn't have have an object. The same difficulty can arise with any transitive verb, such as "purchase".

However, I think the rule that phrasal verbs formed with a preposition must have an object is linguistically bogus, and I'll tell you why: most English prepositions are also classed as adverbs (e.g. "above", "below", "in", "after"). But the sole criterion for getting the dual preposition/adverb classification seems to be whether a preposition forms any intransitive phrasal verbs.

In other words the rule only works because when it doesn't, we issue the preposition in question dual passport. That isn't grammar, it's notation. Most of the sense of "at" aren't semantically all that different from "in", but "in" gets a dual passport because it forms some intransitive phrasal verbs.

I think it's most useful simply to say that "look at" is a transitive verb. Why is this the best way to look at this? Because all the attempts I've seen here to "correct" the sentence in question according to the "rule" we're discussing sound stilted and unnatural. If "the picture is pleasant to look at" sounds wrong to you, your only option is to completely re-architect it: "Looking at the picture is pleasant." But if grammar requires that, it requires it *everywhere*, and it's easy to come up with counter-examples.

Consider "with". Like "at" is a rare English preposition that doesn't hold a dual passport as an adverb. So every phrasal verb that uses it is transitive. Now think of all the prissy grammar nazis who must have seen the movie "Holiday Inn" over the years. Not one of them has ever complained about Fred Astaire singing "You're easy to dance with," even though that sentence makes *precisely* the same "mistake" we're wringing our hands over here. The only way to "correct" sentences with this "problem" is to re-architect them so they don't contain the phrasal verb at all. So you'd have to change "You're easy to dance with," to something like "dancing with you is easy." But the focus of the sentence has shifted; it's not semantically equivalent except in the crudest possible sense.

This is pure hyper-correction. No native English speaker would bat an eye over "the picture is pleasant to look at," unless he was looking for grammatical trouble. If you want to write dialog that sounds natural, you've got to avoid this kind of hyper-correction.


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Osiris
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So much fuss over a little sentence.

I agree with MattLeo on this on two fronts. First, there is nothing grammatically wrong with 'The picture is pleasant to look at'.

The bigger issue, in my opinion is the matter of natural dialog. People end sentences with prepositions. People speak in fragments. Dialog should be natural first, 'correct' second.


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