Quo Vadis is a Latin phrase that was used as the title of a book and later, a movie based on the book. I didn’t like the book much and wasn’t fond of the movie, but I’ve always liked the phrase. Quo vadis is usually translated “whither goest thou?”
Whence and whither are not much used in English these days, and I’m a little sad about that. They would make it so much easier to ask “where did you come from” and “where are you going to” without leaving you with that awkward preposition stranding–that is, when a preposition is far from its intended object. We do it all the time in spoken English: what are you talking about; what is he up to; this bed looks slept in.
Editors can get touchy about stranding, which can lead to authors getting touchy in return. In response to a zealous editor who tried to remove all the dangling prepositions, an author (it is attributed to Winston Churchill) wrote, “This is the sort of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.” This response clearly demonstrates that getting too crazy about rearranging sentences to avoid stranding can make them sound pretty silly.
In trying to minimize the use of dangling prepositions, I’ve discovered that often my preposition is hanging out there because I’m using the wrong words. By using a different word or words, the problem goes away, and the writing gets better. Instead of saying “where did I come from,” my character might actually be asking, who were my parents or what was my country of origin or something else entirely. When I find myself using one of these terms that strands my proposition, I ask myself what am I really trying to say? Is there a better word or phrase that removes the problem and says more clearly what I’m trying to convey? Did I really mean “this is nonsense I won’t put up with”, or did I want to say “this is nonsense I won’t tolerate”?
I am not likely to be using whither and whence in my writing any time soon (unless I’m writing something historical), but I will be trying to keep my sentences undangly at the same time avoiding rearranging them into silliness. But sometimes, you just have to let your prepositions hang out.
Image: Quo Vadis, Jonathan? Jonathan Hutchins at Danebury Hill Fort, Hampshire, England. By Marilyn Evans