Friday, March 28, 2014

Silly unstranded preposition at the BBC

Spotted on the BBC News website
  • The three [South Korean mobile networks] are selling the phone now to get round government restrictions on to whom they can sell new handsets.
Presumably the writer was trying to avoid ending the sentence with a preposition. But this is a case where by trying to follow a non-existent rule the writer has ended up with a totally unnatural sentence.

The problem is that after restrictions on we expect a noun phrase, for example - restrictions on sales of new handsets. But here we have a preposition followed by a preposition phrase, which just sounds weird.
Sometimes on to whom, although formal, works, for example here:
  • ... who first had it, (and) who passed it on to whom?
Here we have a question, and pass (something) on is a phrasal verb, so it's much like saying - who passed it to whom. But we could also strand the preposition (put it to the end):
  • ... who first had it, and who did they pass it on to?
These examples (found at Google Books), although borderline, just about work, I think because on here is not dependent on the previous word and on to could really be written as onto. We could certainly treat on to whom as one chunk when speaking:
  • This standard has been criticised because it assumes that clients are inert material on to whom active ingredients are poured by identical therapeutic technicians
  • identifying omnipotently with the envied aspects of the person on to whom the projection has been made
  • especially as there had been no suitable female person on to whom he could carry over his libido
  • these failures are motivated by our need for subalterns on to whom we can externalize and enact our own rejected qualities
But for me the following (also found at Google Books) simply doesn't work:
  • It depends on to whom you are talking
In this example, it would be much more natural to simply put the preposition to the end, as do most other examples at Google Books. You then have a choice between going for the more formal whom, or just using who. Compare these numbers at Google Books
  • It depends on who you talk to - 45
  • It depends on whom you talk to - 47
  • It depends on to whom you talk - 11
These other examples from Google Books fall into the same (unnatural) boat:
  • depending on to whom she is speaking at a given moment in her community
  • What is disclosed may vary as well, depending on to whom one discloses
In more formal writing it is very often possible to start with a preposition and follow it with whom - the man to whom she was speaking. But there are other times when it simply doesn't work, and that BBC example is one of them. So let's forget this silly 'rule' about not stranding prepositions, and simply write:
  • The three are selling the phone now to get round government restrictions on who(m) they can sell new handsets to.
  • or perhaps better:
  • The three are selling the phone now to get round government restrictions on sales of new handsets.

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