If there’s one thing people love, it’s finding ways to break rules. But is the rule about ending sentences with prepositions valid?
I’m sure all of us had an English teacher or two over the years who had certain rules you couldn’t break. We grew up understanding that you couldn’t ignore certain grammar rules. One of those rules many of us learned was that ending sentences with prepositions was always a horrible idea.
I don’t believe that rules were meant to be broken. In fact, I think it’s more important to look at rules and find out why they appeared to begin with. Sometimes, you can easily find valid reasons to go a different route. Other times, if you really look at rules, you discover that they make sense.
I also don’t believe it’s always a bad idea to end a sentence with a preposition. I don’t ever set out to do so when I write. But there are times when doing so reads better than rearranging a sentence to avoid doing so.
But first things first.
What is a preposition?
Merriam-Webster defines prepositions as “function words that typically combine with a noun phrase to form a phrase which usually expresses a modification or predication.”
I know what you’re thinking: Could I have that in English, please?
Technically, that was English. But those craft dictionary folk do manage to break it down a bit easier:
A preposition is a word—and almost always a very small, very common word—that shows direction (to in “a letter to you”), location (at in “at the door”), or time (by in “by noon”), or that introduces an object (of in “a basket of apples”). Prepositions are typically followed by an object, which can be a noun (noon), a noun phrase (the door), or a pronoun (you).
Their page includes nearly 50 examples of prepositions.
Some insist that ending sentences with prepositions is wrong.
Grammarly suggests it’s not necessarily wrong, but is certainly less formal. It then gives these two examples:
- Which journal was your article published in? (Casual)
- In which journal was your article published? (Formal)
Both sentences, it says, are grammatically correct. But the first one ends with in, a preposition. Avoiding the proposition placement at the end of the sentence involves constructing a more complicated sentence.
I think most readers would understand either sentence, although the first one — the “casual” one — would certainly read a bit easier. Some might even consider it less “stuffy.”
Ending with a preposition makes sense, particularly when the preposition itself is part of a colloquial phrase. Cell Mentor offers a few examples:
- That is exactly what I am concerned about.
- That cake is just to die for.
- That about wraps things up!
As an alternative, it says you could rewrite the first sentence as, “This is exactly the thing about which I am concerned.” You can spin your wheels trying to make rewrites of the other two sentences work. But we all know what they mean as they are.
Did Winston Churchill really say that?
Numerous stories over the years attribute a popular quotation to the late Winston Churchill. Most versions of the story claim a critic attacked his writing (or speech) for ending a sentence in a preposition.
Churchill allegedly responded with a carefully-crafted sentence that specifically avoided the “error” and put the critic away. One of the stories gives this as Churchill’s response:
This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
Do we know for sure that Churchill said it? Apparently not. But it seems such a perfect response to such a petty criticism that it somehow seems within character.
The colloquialism put up with, incidentally, would fall into the category that would make more sense to end a sentence with than to rearrange.
Sometimes, ending sentences with prepositions doesn’t work that well.
There are certain grammatical errors I hear all the time. One of them involves asking about the location of a person or thing. I bet you have heard it as well:
- Where is he at?
I cringe looking at it.
In this case, and in similar constructions along the same lines, the sentence represents a clear grammatical error.
For one thing, you don’t even need the at. “Where is he?” is a perfectly valid sentence. Adding the preposition at the end only makes an otherwise valid sentence sound bad.
You can certainly end a sentence with a preposition. There will be some readers who will complain. But depending on the sentence, there might be others who appreciate the more conversational, if informal, structure.