Tag Archives: grammar myths
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)
A frequent issue that comes up while editing is whether or not sentences can start with the word, “because.” This answer to this question is actually hotly contested… and often misconstrued.
Can you start a sentence with “because”?
The answer is yes. Yes, you can! It’s perfectly okay to start a sentence with because. The word, because is a subordinating conjunction; meaning, it introduces subordinating clauses. In function, it is similar to the words after and although, and the phrases as if, and in order that– all words that can begin sentences without a problem. See?
However, you still have to be careful– when using because or any other subordinating conjunction, you must have a main clause in your sentence. Meaning, you cannot use a subordinate clause on its own, as it would be a fragment.
Here is an example of what I mean.
Because I woke up late, I missed my flight.
This sentence is correct. Why? “I missed my flight” is the main clause of the sentence– meaning, this clause, by itself, is a perfectly fine sentence that can stand up on its own. A subordinate clause can augment a main clause but, as it is subordinating, it cannot stand by itself. “Because I woke up late” by itself would be a fragment.
A helpful way to remember this is to think of subordinating clauses separately, and consider whether it provides enough information in its own to satisfy what needs to be known. Such as:
Because the table was wobbly, I spilled some of my coffee.
“Because the table was wobbly” doesn’t offer enough information on its own: because the table was wobbly what? What happened? Why does the table’s wobbliness matter? “I spilled some of my coffee” is the answer to these burning questions.
In these examples, I’ve formed these sentences to be [subordinate clause] + [main clause] so the difference is immediately clear– they are separated by a comma and are easier to spot. However, the same rules apply if you are to write these sentences as [main clause] + [subordinate clause]. Such as:
I missed my flight because I woke up late.
“I missed my flight” stands on its own and, while it’s a crappy situation, gives enough information by itself. “Because I woke up late” still doesn’t make sense, without being prefaced with what happened, first.
I spilled my coffee because the table was wobbly.
Likewise, “I spilled my coffee” is another unfortunate situation that can stand alone. “Because the table was wobbly” is not enough to stand up by itself.*
*I promise this pun was accidental!