Many of us who learned American English in school likely received certain inviolable decrees about usage. One of them was to use “___ and I” only as a subject. Another was never to split an infinitive (not true).
Yet another was never to end a sentence with a preposition, a breach of form that can still make some language sticklers and prescriptivist grammarians recoil. We would like to debunk that edict as being equal to saying you can never play a musical note that isn’t a part of the scale. Sometimes, the extra note just fits and sounds right.
Prepositions: A Quick Definition
As a recap, a preposition is a function word used to modify verbs, nouns, or adjectives, often to communicate spatial or temporal information (e.g., in, by, on, around, over, at). A preposition also always has an object. Together, the preposition and its object form a prepositional phrase.
in (preposition) one hour (prepositional object)
at the store
around the corner
Prepositions: Where Can and Should They Go?
In most cases, prepositions should remain as close as possible to the components they modify. For example, compare the following sentences.
I have the book you gave me in my locker.
I have in my locker the book you gave me.
Which sentence is clearer? Did you give me the book while you were in my locker, or is the book you gave me currently inside my locker?
At a certain point, some of those charged with educating the public determined that splitting a prepositional phrase and casting the preposition to the end of the sentence was a solecism with little room for debate. It’s possible that this stance was a first cousin of the injunction not to split an infinitive: a hard-and-fast rule just meant to be obeyed.
In principle, the mandate might be understood. Keeping a prepositional phrase intact often produces grammar that is more eloquent and precise. Consider the following sentences:
He is an opponent with whom I may never engage.
He is an opponent whom I may never engage with.
Which version strikes your inner ear as being better composed? The first will likely receive greater affirmation within a formal context.
This same line of reasoning supports why a preposition can end a sentence. Every language creates its own rhythm and instinctive patterns over great lengths of time. Some expressions simply sound better even if they don’t satisfy grammatical rules. For example, compare the following sentences.
What are you doing that for?
For what are you doing that?
Somebody please remind me what chapter we’re in.
Somebody please remind me in what chapter we are.
Which sentence in each pair sounds more natural to the American ear? Our idioms and colloquialisms often steer parts of speech to where we intuit they belong.
The same can be said of English in Commonwealth countries. You may have heard of the humorous retort that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once gave in reference to a newspaper quote that was redacted to “fix” prepositional use: “This is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which I will not put!”
Ending a Sentence in a Preposition: The Verdict
For those seeking to know if a preposition can end a sentence, the answer is yes, as long as it serves fluent communication with the right words in the right places. We should not make this style too lax or habitual—we discourage usage such as it’s where you’ll be at—but rather apply it to make language sound more natural than coarse, pretentious, or stilted.
Using what you now understand about ending a sentence with a preposition, determine if each following statement is acceptable. If so, leave it as it is. If you think it can be improved, revise it.
1. What is that you’re leaning on?
2. From where are all of these fruit flies coming?
3. The news tell me more about.
4. The roof Ernesto will climb up to.
5. Exactly what is she getting us into?
Pop Quiz Answers
1. What is that you’re leaning on? (This statement is acceptable as colloquial American English.)
2. From where are all of these fruit flies coming? (This statement is technically acceptable; however, in American English, a more-colloquial sentence would be where are all of these fruit flies coming from?)
3. The news tell me more about. (Revise as tell me more about the news.)
4. The roof Ernesto will climb up to. (Revise as Ernesto will climb up to the roof.)
5. Exactly what is he getting us into? (This statement is acceptable as colloquial American English.)
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