Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Prepositions: Put ’Em Where You Like

with 6 comments

Let’s make this abundantly clear: it is perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. Or rather: a preposition is something you can end a sentence with.

The supposed rule to not end a sentence with a preposition is one familiar even to people who don’t spend their Saturdays reading grammar books (cut me some slack – grammar can be more exciting than some fiction I’ve read).

But despite how often we’ve all heard this supposed rule, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and what’s more, it’s not even supported by many grammarians.

But first, what’s a preposition?

They’re those little words that attach to nouns or phrases to show some sort of relationship and often deal with spatial or chronological ideas.

Some examples of prepositions are:
•    On
•    Over
•    With
•    In
•    Across
•    Until
•    Against
•    To

Prepositions aren’t particularly meaningful by themselves, but they’re invaluable in clarifying meaning. Try taking the words with, to, on, and for out of your speech and see what happens.

So they’re pretty important. And a long time ago, prescriptive grammarians told us all not to end a sentence with these little guys. But why?

Some people thought English was Latin

The basic story is that Latin was the learned language centuries ago when we first started writing down grammar rules and standardizing our spelling. All the scholars spoke and wrote in Latin; it worked as a handy lingua franca and they just thought it was the best thing ever (sliced bread hadn’t yet been invented), even though Latin is cumbersome had had zero native speakers for a millennium.

So, when these scholars began setting down rules for English, they figured, “Hey, Latin totally rocks more than English, so let’s impose Latin grammar on everything!”

Without getting into the details, it makes a whole lot of sense to never end a sentence with a preposition in Latin. The nouns change cases, and keeping the prepositions nearby is key in helping figure out what the heck is going on.

But in English, that’s not a problem we have to deal with.

English isn’t Latin. English is a living Germanic language; Latin’s a dead Romance language. Totally different families, histories and grammar. It’s like saying soccer is better than baseball, so baseball players shouldn’t be allowed to use their hands.

Can I really end a sentence with a preposition?

Yes.

Rearranging sentences to fit a non-rule can make your writing cumbersome. If you rearrange one of the sentences above, you’re left with: But in English, that’s not a problem with which we have to deal.

That sentence sounds fine if you’re a 18th-century butler. But I’m guessing anyone reading this blog isn’t.

So first, it’s common sense and common usage to end with prepositions. And if that’s not enough to sway you, remember that all the grammar sources I checked said that it’s fine. If you feel like avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition, it’s just a matter of style.

Whether you feel like using your prepositions willy-nilly or want to keep rearranging your sentences around them is up to you. I just hope that now you have a little more background. After all, your education is for what I am here.

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Written by Nathanael Green

July 28, 2009 at 5:45 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Nater,

    This “rule” has always bothered me too. I didn’t know, though I should have suspected, that it had been appropriated from Latin grammar. It makes about as much sense as the old split infinitive rule.

    Brian O'Rourke

    July 30, 2009 at 7:14 am

    • It’s my understanding that Latin grammar actually works really well and makes a whole lot of sense … you know, if you’re speaking Latin. But yeah, this is another one of those imposed things like the split infinitive.

      The thing is, like most of what I talk about, it’s a matter of style. There are times when ending with a preposition is just as awkward as not doing it. But everyone notices those and just corrects it automatically. Either way, just say what you want to say how you want to say it.

      Nathanael Green

      July 30, 2009 at 5:12 pm

      • I kind of knew about the whole preposition thing, but this was reassuring. However news of the relaxation of the split infinitive ‘law’ seems to have passed me by. Not that I ever quite understood what I was doing with that anyway.

        Seana

        July 31, 2009 at 8:25 pm

        • Seana,

          The split infinitive is another silly Latin deal that doesn’t make sense. In the 1800s, grammarians imposed this rule on English, and ever since, we’ve been fighting against it every day in our spoken language because it just doesn’t make sense.

          And as far as I can tell, most grammar guides have done away with it officially as well.

          So I, for one, have decided to wholeheartedly disregard the split-infinitive “rule.”

          Nathanael Green

          August 1, 2009 at 11:29 am

  2. I bet it will be fifty years before high school English teachers get clued in about this, though.

    I don’t know if this could be considered ‘hedging’ or not, but I was out with my sisters and my mom last night and we started discussing this family speech pattern (probably because we were practicing it) where you load the front end of the sentence with qualifiers and parentheticals and other explanatory phrases and wait till the very end of the sentence to wait till the end of the sentence to finally hone in on the subject of all this. My sister’s example of this was something like “So we were driving, and Joe didn’t really want to go because he’d been talking to Sam about Sam’s father, who was having surgery the next day–anyway, we went out to the mall.” Oddly, my cousin’s family does this too, but my mom, who would be the common link, doesn’t really do this at all.

    Seana

    August 1, 2009 at 12:25 pm

  3. English and the Romance languages came into being because people had the audacity to change the language they were using…and yet English teachers insist on sticking to tired rules that have no basis in the formation of the language? That is backward thinking!

    http://translation-blog.trustedtranslations.com/ending-sentences-with-prepositions-in-english-2009-08-05.html

    Scott

    August 5, 2009 at 10:53 am


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