NORTH ADAMS — There’s a classic joke about a guy visiting Harvard who asks a student, “Hey, can you tell me where the Widener Library is at?” The student sneers and replies, “Here at Harvard, we do not end our sentences with a preposition.” The visitor says, “My bad. Can you tell me where the Widener Library is at, Jerkface?”
Proper preposition usage is essential for anyone trying to communicate. Prepositions can be hurtful (“I like reading all of the columnists except Seth!”), or romantic (“I’m going for a moonlit stroll, if you’d like to come with.” “Are you prepositioning me?”), but when it comes to the holidays, it is important to choose our prepositions like we hang stockings: with care.
I love Thanksgiving, as a holiday. No singing (aside from Alice’s Restaurant, which only barely counts as singing), way too much food (ensuring days of tasty leftovers), and most importantly, the idea that a little gratitude is appropriate (which it always is). But my main complaint about Thanksgiving is that we focus on the wrong preposition. Everyone — or at least, everyone eating at my parents’ house — goes around the table saying what they are thankful FOR, rather than who they are thankful TO.
Thankful FOR is basically just a list of basking in your good FORtune. “I’m thankful for a good relationship, and my career, and this great food, and to live in this country.” Lucky you, you have all the things! But they didn’t just happen randomly, there were people responsible for your good fortune, and it’s worth being thankful TO them. Being thankful FOR my good relationship is bragging, “Wow, I lucked out!” But I try to be thankful TO my partner and say, “I appreciate you,” because one cannot overstate the tremendous amount of personal sacrifice it takes to live with someone who writes humor columns about prepositions.
It’s about directing the gratitude TOwards the parties responsible, to acknowledge their contributions. Likewise my writing career owes a debt of gratitude to all my editors, from Bob Whitcomb who gave me my first job writing for a professional newspaper at the Providence Journal back in 1997, to my current editors 24 years later who still pay me the same rates.
Gratitude for food should go to a lot of people, from the farmers who grow it, to the workers who harvest it or stock it at the supermarket, to the chefs who cook it, to anyone who serves or delivers it to you. We briefly recognized that these workers were essential during the pandemic, but soon forgot that we do not always stand on the shoulders of giants, but on the shoulders of many unsung Lilliputians — which we should be Swift to recognize.
But some people do not realize they stand on the shoulders of others, and would rather stand on their necks. Many of us in this country owe a debt of gratitude to those who welcomed our immigrant ancestors, whether that was the Wampanoag tribe 400 years ago in 1621 for the first pilgrim Thanksgiving (which the Wampanoag still regret), or people who refused to discriminate against more recent arrivals in the past couple hundred years. Sadly, the recipients of this ancestral goodwill frequently seem disinclined to pay it back, let alone forward.
Suffice to say, we all have people we should be grateful to. Writers are always told to avoid the passive voice—advice which is ignored by me, like most advice. But I do believe in avoiding passive thankfulness, in favor of active thankfulness. So whether you’re arguing over the best way to prepare a turkey (spatchcock, dry brine), or debating waking up at 5am to join a Black Friday stampede to save $50 (not worth it), I encourage you to choose your prepositions with care—and don’t be a Jerkface.