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Defending Speech With Which I Don't Agree

Yeah, I think the title is worded awkwardly, but I am trying to curb my enthusiasm for ending sentences with prepositions  (I will continue to boldly split infinitives that no man has split before).

Anyway, in the spirit of this post and this one, I try from time to time to reinforce my support for free speech as an absolute right by publicly supporting the speech rights of those with whom I disagree.  Today's case is the public University of Nebraska-Lincoln deciding to un-invite former terrorist William Ayers to speak on campus.  The reason given was the current weak-ass excuse often used to reverse the invitation of controversial speakers, "we can't gaurantee security." 

Though I would never have hired the guy, Ayers is a professor at a real public university, and what he has to say is particularly relevant given his ties to Barrack Obama.  I find the behavior of Nebraska's conservative politicians to be especially absurd here -- after months of calling for more discussion and disclusore of Ayers and his ties to Obama, they want to prevent Ayers from speaking publicly?

Update:  In an odd coincidence, at about the same time I was writing this post, the NY Times blog was posting on split infinitives.

Posted on October 27, 2008 at 09:04 AM | Permalink


Since this thread is "more newer" than the prepositions post, I will add here that back in school, the popular response to a question ended with a preposition, i.e. "Where are we going to?" or "Where is that at?" would be "To/At a place where they don't end their sentences with prepositions." I have started using this more frequently as the eldest daughter and her friends ask questions like the above. Most of them stare at me dumbly, then ask "What's a preposition?"

Posted by: Brian | Oct 27, 2008 9:21:44 AM

Also, keeping on topic, I think that defending unpopular speech is the best possible way of demonstrating when someone's speech is worth ignoring. What better way to recognize someone has ideas not worth listening to than to provide them a public forum to share their absurd ideas with the widest possible audience?

Supply and demand is not limited to financial transactions. People with dumb ideas should be given just as much opportunity to share their absurd ideas as anyone else. A "free market" of ideas, where the truly absurd are abandoned for lack of audience/market.

Posted by: Brian | Oct 27, 2008 9:26:08 AM

A real linguist traces the "superstition" about ending a sentence with a preposition at


He traces it all the way back to Dryden in 1672, where Dryden rebukes Jonson for the "fault", and comments:

"It's a shame that Jonson had been dead for 35 years at the time, since he would otherwise have challenged Dryden to a duel, and saved subsequent generations a lot of grief."

Posted by: Jens Fiederer | Oct 27, 2008 9:45:51 AM

Am I really the only one to see this clearly? [That can be parsed two ways--either one works.)

Let's us move to another Amendment to look at the problem. It turns out that you can use either on and not change the sense of the argument.

I support the freedom of the press. Anybody who owns or can rent one is and ought to be free to print anything they want to print.

That does not imply any duty on my part to pay for the press or the ink, nor to buy the paper before or after it has been printed upon.

Similarly (cutting to the chase) Ayers has no right to ask me (a Nebraska Taxpayer) to pay for his soapbox from which to advocate my destruction (I already survived the efforts of the SDS in them 1960's and 1970's).

Posted by: Larry Sheldon | Oct 27, 2008 10:10:04 AM

My father's mother (grammar school teacher) Answered questions of the form "Where is my hat at?" with "right before the 'at'".

And my little protest is to put the punctuation where it makes sense, which is to say "outside the quotation marks".

Posted by: Larry Sheldon | Oct 27, 2008 10:14:25 AM

I'm guessing those politicians are mainly indicating that funding a speech by Ayers will have only the most marginal educational benefits, and therefore might be indicative of an excess of funding, or management which does not see education as its primary mission. Therefore an objective review might find that the budget can be reduced, or better management hired. And that will leave Ayers perfectly free to walk into any town-square and give a speech there.

Posted by: Daran | Oct 27, 2008 10:48:49 AM

I suspect prepositions were named by someone who felt they should never be at the end, hence the name pre-position. But prescriptive grammar is doomed to fail.

Regarding Ayers, he is free to speak, but the University can not be required to host him, (depending on their previous agreement with him). Just like how Obama is free to run for President, but no one can be required to vote for him.

Posted by: Kevin Jackson | Oct 27, 2008 11:07:37 AM

How is this a free-speech issue at all? He is free to espouse whatever he'd like. The university just decided that it wouldn't be at an event celebrating the anniversary of the teacher's college.

I'm sure I wasn't the only alumnus that found it disgraceful that our university, funded by dollars from the people of Nebraska, had invited a terrorist who'd attempted to murder US citizens, to speak at this event. I am sure that many like me sent emails to the university administration to register their disappointment in the decision. The university subsequently responded to its constituents and rescinded the invitation.

You wrote:

"Though I would never have hired the guy, Ayers is a professor at a real public university, and what he has to say is particularly relevant given his ties to Barrack Obama."

Okay, but what relevance does it have to the 100 year anniversary of this university's teachers college, or to the conservative views of the majority of the taxpayers in Nebraska who fund the institution?

I take it by your comments that you fall on the side of actors or musicians like the Dixie Chicks who cry that their free-speech is somehow being trampled upon when no one wants to listen to the crap that falls out of their mouth.

Posted by: Brad | Oct 27, 2008 12:46:42 PM

Prepositions are perfectly ok things to end sentences with.

Posted by: Josh | Oct 27, 2008 1:40:07 PM

I'm a former University of Nebraska faculty member. I don't believe that the faculty want to prevent (terrorist asshole) Ayers from speaking. But, when a university sends a formal invitation to speak, it is also making an endorsement. Endorsing Ayers is not good. It would be different if Ayers had been invited to participate in a debate or interview. But, providing him with a public forum for spreading his poisonous views would not be good for the University.

About the other matter:
I don't know what the English language is coming to. It gets me down. This nonsense about no prepositions at the end of a sentence burns me up. It always was too stupid a rule to deal with.

Posted by: Dr. T | Oct 27, 2008 3:57:26 PM

The whole silly end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition controversy arose over a hundred years ago when the British decided that Latin was the model for any proper language. Though English vocabulary has certainly been enriched by Latin (and later, French,) its grammar and syntax remain distinct. Please, don't feel guilty about breaking this nonsensical rule. To paraphrase Churchill, that is something up with which you should not put.

Oh yeah, I agree with you on the free speech thing, too.

Posted by: Craig | Oct 27, 2008 4:26:22 PM

A long, long time ago I took Latin. In Latin it makes no sense to end a sentence with a preposition; an object must follow a preposition. I was told that the grammatical rules of Latin were imposed on the English language by the educated especially for the written word. In practice, it often makes sense to end a sentence with a preposition and to rearrange said sentence so that it is grammatically correct often results in a very awkward sentence. Anyhow, this was told to me by a professor with skills in an amazing array of languages and more degrees than you can shake a yard of boudin at.

Posted by: macquechoux | Oct 28, 2008 7:25:03 AM

Definitely "over a hundred years", since the example from my previous column was 1672 (while Dryden did not reference Latin, or provide ANY explanation, he DID assert that adherence to such rules made him a better writer than Jonson, Fletcher, or Shakespeare.

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