Grammar Myths Debunked: Ending a sentence with a preposition.

Ending a sentence with a preposition. (From Remixer 96 on Flickr.)

In my last grammar post, I covered how starting sentences with because is actually grammatically acceptable. Now, I will show you how you can also end sentences with prepositions, contrary to what grammarians and English teachers may tell you.

Students are taught time and again that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition; I certainly remember learning this in grade school. This lesson is also attributed (wrongfully, I’m afraid) to Winston Churchill as well.

The origin of this myth stems from a 17th century notion that English was inferior to Latin and that, in order to approve upon it, English should abide by Latin’s grammar rules. (If you’re nerdy like me, you can read more about that here.) But, as English is an ancestral German dialect, these Latin rules does not fit the natural structure of English comfortably.

So, what does this all mean?

Well, first off, there are certain sentences that almost can’t be formed without ending with a preposition without sounding ridiculous.

In the famous story woefully misattributed to Winston Churchill, he complained “…[t]hat is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!” when criticized by a newspaper editor for, well, ending a sentence with a preposition. Wrong story or not, this nonetheless highlights how sentences can sound nonsensical when following this “rule.”

Here are some more examples:

The ring had not even been picked out. This sentence sounds good and ends in a preposition. It is also grammatically correct. See?

Picked out the ring had not even been. This sentence, while grammatically correct, resembles a quote from Yoda. This clearly doesn’t work as well.

The marathon was rained out. While this isn’t such good news for the runners, it is a perfectly good sentence that –you guessed it– ends in a preposition.

Rained out was the marathon. This is yet another Yoda impression that doesn’t work.

So, why is this the case?

Often, what looks like a preposition in an English sentence is actually not a preposition at all. Instead, it is a part of the verb, to create a phrasal verb. These words are prepositions on their own but, when combined with certain verbs, become adverbial particles and part of these phrasal verbs.

Examples of these phrasal verbs are:

  • Branched out
  • Throw up
  • Put up
  • Shut up
  • Got off

As such, it is preferable to say “Where do you get off?” rather than “Off where do you get?” And, it is perfectly fine to say “Let’s kiss and make up.”

But, yes,  there are circumstances where you shouldn’t to end your sentence with a proposition. If the meaning of your sentence does not change with or without the preposition, then you should not include it. So, “where are you at?” is still incorrect, as it means exactly the same as “where are you?” (Sorry.)

Of course, this is a much contested rule so, if you’re still not sure, here’s further proof:

The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which a preposition was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with. But Latin grammar should never straightjacket English grammar. If the superstition is a “rule” at all, it is a rule of rhetoric and not of grammar, the idea being to end sentences with strong words that drive a point home. That principle is sound, of course, but not to the extent of meriting lockstep adherence or flouting established idiom.

(Garner’s Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press, 2003)

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