Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 20: Unfinished Business

Legend has it that Constanza Mozart, in an attempt to rouse her husband from bed during the late morning hours, would sit at the piano and play a C major scale. She'd get all the way up to the B natural. And stop.

Wolfgang couldn't stand it. His ear was begging for some kind of fulfillment, so he'd leap out of bed, rush to the piano and bang out the final note, much to his relief.

About a century later, Richard Wagner pulled the same shenanigans with many of his operas, most notably the dramatic love story, "Tristan und Isolde." After four hours of stressfully unresolved chord progressions, fulfillment arrives at the very end during the aria "Liebestod" where Isolde finally dies of grief. In fact, the stress of performing this opera claimed the lives of two conductors mid-performance, both of whom died right there on the podium.

The comparable age-old rule dictating that ending a sentence with a preposition is incorrect is worth examination. Some sentences have the Constanza Mozart/Richard Wagner effect, though—if you can resolve it with a direct object, it's probably best to do so:
"Are you coming with?" sounds better when it's "Are you coming with us?"
"Mr. Posthumous was planning to take over" is more specific when it becomes "Mr. Posthumous was planning to take over the balloon factory!"
The golden rule of good communication in writing or speech is clarity. So trying to reconfigure your sentences to avoid ending them in a preposition sometimes makes them sound clunky.
"Peggy, what is this about?" becomes "Peggy, about what is this?"

"Burt and I have some paperwork to go over" becomes "Burt and I have some paperwork over which to go."
In the 21st century, it would seem a little out of place to make statements like these. In other words, it's okay to have sentences ending in prepositions, so long as they don't leave you hanging.

Unfinished musical scales, though—that is something up with which you should not put.

Sources: The Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie, and from The Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin.

Music from this Episode: "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" by Wolfgang A. Mozart; "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner; "Rock me Amadeus" by Falco.

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