The Truth About Prepositions and the End of Sentences
A great man once said, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
Eloquently highlighting the ridiculousness of strictly adhering to the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, Winston Churchill may not have realized that his defiance is supported by history. As it turns out, there was never any such generally recognized rule. So where did the idea that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition start?
Many writers in Restoration Era England (1660-1689), and in particular “Glorious John” Dryden (one of the greatest poets, dramatists and literary critics of the 17th century), believed they had vastly improved the quality of English literature over their “Tudor and Elizabethan ancestors:”
The language, wit, and conversation of our age, are improved and refined above the last . . . these absurdities, which those poets [e.g. Shakespeare] committed [were due to] the want of education and learning.
The additional education and learning that Dryden claimed included a mastery of Latin, a language he revered. And, since in Latin one cannot end a sentence with a preposition, Dryden contended that it shouldn’t be allowed in English either. (This is the exact same reasoning behind why, for a very brief time, it was considered incorrect in some circles to split an infinitive.)
Influential, many listened to him including Bishop Robert Lowth, a fellow of the Royal Society of London and author of A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). An extremely popular textbook on the subject, the Short Introduction included what came to be known as “Dryden’s rule,” although even Lowth acknowledged that ending a sentence with a preposition was not only dominant “in common conversation [but also that it] suits very well with the familiar style in writing.”
Nonetheless, since Lowth, like Dryden, felt that “placing the preposition before the relative is more graceful,” and since those two literary giants were in favor of it, many adopted the style. By the dawn of the 20th century, it had taken on the characteristics of a rule – particularly among grammar school teachers.
However, literary scholars knew better (but no one was listening to them). As late as 1926, when Henry Fowler published a Dictionary of Modern English Usage, he described the “rule” as a “cherished superstition.”
As for today, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, there are four primary types of sentences where it sounds more natural to end a sentence with a preposition:
- Infinitive: Joe had no one to go with.
- Who, what, where type questions: What song were you listening to?
- Passive: The cat was let in.
- Relative clauses: That’s the man she lived with.
The Oxford Dictionaries website also recommend a joke to really drive the point home:
A snobbish English teacher was sitting in an Atlanta airport coffee shop waiting for her flight back to Connecticut when a friendly Southern Belle sat down next to her.
“Where y’all goin’ to?” asked the Southern Belle.
Turning her nose in the air, the snob replied, “I don’t answer people who end their sentences with prepositions.”
The Southern Belle thought a moment, and tried again. “Where y’all going’ to, BITCH?”
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New York Times columnist William Safire put together a list of elegantly incorrect sentences that demonstrate grammatical rules, called “fumblerules.” Some of the best include:
- Remember to never split an infinitive.
- The passive voice should never be used.
- Do not put statements in the negative form.
- No sentence fragments.
- A writer must not shift your point of view.
- And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
- Write all adverbial forms correct.
- Don’t use contractions in formal writing.
- Steer clear of incorrect forms of verbs that have snuck in the language.
- Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
- Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
- If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, resist hyperbole.
- Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration.
- The adverb always follows the verb.
- Avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.
- Churchill on Prepositions
- Ending a sentence with a preposition: Jokes
- English Preposition List
- Goodreads Quotes: William Safire
- Grammar Myths #1
- Introduction: Dictionary of Modern English Usage
- John Dryden
- Latin-Obsessed 17th Century Introverts
- Preposition placement in relative clauses
- Robert Lowth
- Restoration literature
- Urban legend: don’t end sentence with preposition
- What is a Passive Sentence?
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