Geoff Pullum at Language Log has a properly outraged response to the discovery that the New Yorker‘s search engine, when baffled, says: “I’m sorry I couldn’t find that for which you were looking.” It’s like a parody of “good grammar” of the sort that one would have thought long laid to rest along with unsigned articles, even at that famously prissy magazine. I won’t repeat his strictures, but I will remind everyone that there is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. It is perfectly good English and always has been. See Geoff’s post for the sad tale of how the myth was born, grew, and overcame the truth, thus poisoning English writing in general and the New Yorker in particular.


  1. I wouldn’t like “I couldn’t find what you were looking for” either. I hate it when they try to anthropomorphize computers. What’s this “I” nonsense? Why can’t they write in a neutral manner that actually contains information about your query?
    “No standard web pages containing all your search terms were found.”
    “Your search – Intelligent life at NY Times – did not match any documents.”

  2. That’s the kind of thing up with which I shall not put.

  3. If they have to anthropomorphize, couldn’t they have at least added punctuation — a comma, a semicolon, a period (a dash may be too uncouth for The New Yorker) — after the “sorry”?
    “I’m sorry; I couldn’t find …”
    Otherwise, it adds run-on-sentencehood to its other problems.
    Though I think I’d prefer something along the lines of, “Sorry. The search term ______ does not seem to be in our database.”

  4. On the other extremity, here’s a sentence I run across a few days ago in a blog land somewhere.
    This mother brings a book upstairs, to read to her child. And here’s what the child has to say about it:
    “What did you bring that book that i didn’t want to be read to out of up for?”

  5. I agree about the anthropomorphizing; it’s almost as bad as that stupid animated paperclip that pops up in MS Word.

  6. I don’t think it is a run-on sentence. I read it as equivalent to «I’m sorry that I couldn’t find what you were looking for». I don’t know what the prescriptivist position is on omitting the «that».
    Personally, while I absolutely agree that it’s unnatural, I find the sentence rather funny and charming in its eccentricity, although that’s probably not what was intended.
    While we’re on the subject of anthropomorphisation in automated messages, though, there’s another example that does irritate me. Railway stations in the south of England employ a certain loudspeaker system which announces arrivals, departures etc. in a prerecorded voice. When a train’s late, it says (approximately) «The [time] for [destination] has been delayed. I apologise for the inconvenience.» If it said «We apologize», well, an automated collective apology from South West Trains might not count for much when you’re going to miss your bus, but it makes a certain kind of sense. But «I»? Personal responsibility is taken – by the speaker system? the guy who made the recording? whoever pushed the button to turn it on?

  7. Tim, I can supply endless daily examples of my similarly charming/weird use of English preposition until you’ll no longer find it funny.
    Train station announcements: more neutral but not less irritating NY subway dispatchers send this recorded message: “Due to congestion ahead this train experience delay and will be moving shortly. Thank you for riding Metropolitan Transportation Authority!” (which always bring disturbing mental images to my mind)

  8. [Strike *mental* from the above sentence, please]
    LH, do you know there are semi-gods of computer science in this Universe who can actually turn off The Paperclip Man?

  9. It’s just a self-mocking joke, isn’t it?

  10. I certainly hope so.

  11. Gah! People, this has to stop! English is not, never was, and never will be Latin! End a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive to your hearts’ content; it’s totally gramatically correct.
    And thank Buddha Sir Winston is not alive to see that sentence. It would cause apoplexy, I expect (though probably a very witty bon mot).

  12. Michael Farris says

    I was wondering if this is a secondary effect of outsourcing? The sentence in question reads (to me) a little like some of the less … idiomatic things I’ve seen from the non-native press.
    Interestingly, the combination of that and which is so common in Polish* that I didn’t notice it at first and it only stood out after the third reading or so. (I also didn’t see what was weird about “this ever changing world, in which we live in” for a long time either, maybe I’m just getting old)
    * Provisional translation might go:
    Nie znalazłem tego, czego szukałeś.
    I didn’t find that, which you were looking for.
    (the ‘sorry’ and ‘couldn’t’ would be out of place to my (non-native) intuitions – though making the whole thing impersonal “nie znaleziono tego, czego szukano” might be better yet, though still pretty unidiomatic)
    is “that, which” common in Russian too?

  13. > is “that, which” common in Russian too?
    Well… This is how I would translate that phrase:
    Я не смог (мы не смогли) найти то, что Вы искали
    A word for word: I couldn’t find that, which you searched (‘for’ is not used).
    Actually, I tried it on a real life Russian search engine. Here’s what I came up with:
    “Искомая комбинация слов нигде не встречается”
    (The required combination of words is not met anywhere).
    So it’s totally unpersonal. Come to think, this is the commonly accepted way to put it in Russian.

  14. Yeah, but there’s another superstition about using the passive voice, to which I’m sure the awed programmer (“I’m writing for the New Yorker! I must get this right!”) was paying heed at the time. [Do not give me shit for my placement of “to” there, please.]

  15. I think dimrub is onto something there. Russians do not try to personalize everything the way Americans do; whereas in America corporations try to sound like your buddy, in Russia the woman at the desk on your hotel floor tries to sound like the Force of History (“That is not done”).
    I’m torn between Michael’s outsourcing theory and Aidan’s awed programmer, both of which sound plausible.

  16. Dimrub’s multi-prepositional sentence ending can be improved as follows:
    The story goes that the kid rejected a particular book, downstairs, before dinner. After dinner it’s bedtime, and mom comes up the stairs with the same book. So the kid goes, “What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of before up for after?” Which is seven, count’em, consecutive prepositions at the end of a sentence. (And then, if the book is about Australia, you could make it, “What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of before about Down Under up for after?” Ten.

  17. Martin, the last one sent me down under the table laughing about!

  18. Well said. I totally agree with you. The point you are making here does make sense. And all those who oppose your views actually lack the basic essence of the subject. You must keep doing the good work.

  19. I agree with Stephen: this has to be intentional self-parody. It’s funny. Lighten up, Language Hat!

  20. If you turn off Paperclip Man often enough, he pops up with the message, ‘You’ve hidden me several times now. Do you want me to go away forever?’ (or words to that effect). That’s all I need: my computer trying to lay a guilt trip on me!

  21. It has to be self-parody.
    The Microsoft spelling and grammar checker allows you to end a sentence with a preposition: “I couldn’t find what you were looking for.” Also, newer versions of Word don’t choke on all passive voice. It allows “The term you were searching for was not found.” The passive voice superstition arose from Microsoft’s misinterpretation of effective technical writing.
    So… I vote for “It’s a joke!”

  22. I thought all these “prepositions” were the particles belonging to a phrasal verb construction… not “dangling prepositions.”

  23. Some are, some aren’t. In “You’d bettter watch out” it’s a phrasal verb, but in “That’s something I don’t want to look at” it’s just a plain old preposition.

  24. Gene Fellner says

    Many words serve double duty as prepositions and adverbs. “I am going in” and “The plane is coming down” clearly use “in” and “down” as adverbs. The “up” in “put up” is an adverb. Therefore Sir Winston could have settled for, “This is something with which I shall not put up.”

  25. ktschwarz says

    We’ll never know who wrote that search-engine message and why, but in fact the New Yorker’s own house style doesn’t ban stranded prepositions and never has. A selection from before the date of Pullum’s post:

    Jul 8, 1939 — what kind of dress she was looking for
    Feb 28, 1942 — like a man who knew exactly what he was looking for
    Dec 19, 1977 — He found what he was looking for in the mid-sixties
    Jan 27, 1986 — At the conclusion of what she described as a “brief interview” in Louisville, he suggested that she become the “gorilla girl” he was looking for.
    Dec 16, 1996 — … the whereabouts of people Scarpa was looking for.
    May 21, 2000 — Page and Brin also wonder whether Clever will be what people are looking for.
    Dec 17, 2001 — … the confidence to predict, in the pressure and rush of examination time, what the S.A.T. is looking for.
    Mar 11, 2002 — The men the soldiers are looking for belong to any number of dangerous militant groups
    Sep 15, 2003 — the kind of theoretical exploration of architecture that Libeskind was looking for.
    Aug 2, 2004 — One can find evidence for either proposition in “My Life,” if that’s what one is looking for.

    And so on. (Direct quotes, humor, and fiction excluded.) Of course, the magazine also uses “for which” constructions sometimes, but I could only find one example of “for which * was/etc. looking”, and it’s in 2010:

    August 12, 2010 — Franzen is fifty, perhaps not of “this” generation (whatever that means), but Time seems to have found the source of “the yearning and the rage of the contemporary” for which it was looking.

    So the New Yorker itself isn’t poisoned by the myth, and Pullum’s point, that it *is* a myth, would’ve been strengthened if he’d mentioned that.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    I too am not nearly as certain as Pullum that this wasn’t a joke. It seems to me exactly the sort of self-parodic thing that the New Yorker would favour.

    A certain university’s computer science department has (or had) a 404 page that said “Page not found. However, you are as good as you are beautiful, and everybody loves you.”

    I don’t think that can really be improved on.

  27. Yes, all these years later it seems pretty obvious that it was a joke. And not a bad one, either.

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