Coffee Talk #50
November 21, 2001
By Rick Walston, Ph.D.

Table Of Contents

Never End a Sentence With a Preposition! Oh, Really?

I recently received a letter from a person who was very unhappy (to put it mildly) about the fact that I had ended a sentence with a preposition. He called into question my entire education on the basis of that one "breaking" of the "rule."

However, while it may be a matter of some import to those of a by-gone generation, the real issue at hand is why does this rule exist in the first place? Is it a legitimate rule? Does it have a syntactical significance? Or, is it a matter of simple preference?

I'm certainly not against grammar rules, but are they valid? Certain rules of grammar are valid, and some of them are there "just because."

The rule about never ending a sentence with a preposition is one such just-because rule.

Parents will often tell their kids to do something, and when the child asks, "Why?" the answer is too often, "Because I said so."

So, why are we never to end a sentence in a preposition? Because the teacher says so.

Well, that's not good enough for me.

THE ANTI-TERMINAL PREPOSITION RULE'S ORIGIN

Some rules of English grammar are carried over from rules in other languages. Sometimes they are important, and sometimes not.

NEVER ending a sentence with a preposition is NOT that important. In fact, it has no basis in English syntax. The rule (Never End a Sentence with a preposition) is a carry-over from the rules of Latin grammar.

In other words, this rule has been imported from Latin into English with no valid reasoning behind its importation. Latin words have different endings showing their various cases and meanings depending on the role they play in a certain sentence. They can be moved around within a sentence without changing the meaning of that sentence. However, the one word that should not be placed at the end of a Latin sentence is a preposition. However, English does not work in the same way, and English words do not have the various endings as in Latin.

The most important aspect about this rule, in my estimation, is to know that it exists, and to know that some people think that it is important.

If you know that it exists, and you are writing a paper, article, or whatever for someone (or some group) that you know believes that this rule is a "sacred-cow" of grammar, then you'll be wise to conform to the rule for their sake (not for the sake of good English).

However, if you want to "break" the rule to establish that you are not bound by old, out-of-date rules, then you may wish to be a bit more contemporary in your writing and let the chips fall where they may.

What the Big Boys and Girls Have to Say About It

WORKING WITH WORDS: A Concise Handbook for Media Writers and Editors, 3rd ed .
This is a delightful and powerful book in which we find that the rule" that you should never end a sentence with a preposition is a famous one, but . . .

Almost as famous as the rule, however, is Winston Churchill's rejoinder beloved by all who hate learning silly rules: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put" (St. Martin's Press, 1997, p. 55).

WOE IS I: The Grammarphobe's Guide To Better English In Plain English -- Next, Patricia T. O'Conner, an editor at THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, has written a wonderful little book on grammar that is both fun and instructive. In chapter nine, titled, "The Living Dead, Let Bygone Rules be Gone," she deals with our rule at hand:

TOMBSTONE: It's wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.

R.I.P. Here's another bugaboo that English teachers used to get worked up over . We can blame the eighteenth-century English clergyman named Robert Lowth for this one. He wrote the first grammar book to say that a preposition (a positioning word, like at ,by ,for ,into ,off ,on ,out ,over ,to ,under ,up ,with ) shouldn't go at the end of a sentence. This idea caught on, even though great literature from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton is bristling with sentences ending in prepositions. . . . At any rate, this is a rule that modern grammarians have tried to get us out from under (Grosset/Putnam Book, 1996, p. 183).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition

The doctrine that a preposition may not be used to end a sentence was first promulgated by Dryden, probably on the basis of a specious analogy to Latin, and was subsequently refined by the 18th-century grammarians. . . . In fact, English syntax allows and sometimes requires the final placement of the preposition (1992, the usage note on the term "preposition").

Britannica Book of English Usage

A second false rule prohibits putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, as if it had dropped its proper link at an earlier spot. Nothing, on the contrary, is more idiomatic in English than this practice of winding up a statement strongly with a preposition (Doubleday, 1980, p. 452).

The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage

Even today, some college and high school English teachers are telling their students that a sentence should not end with a preposition. But, this is another 'rule' that is no longer firm, if it ever really was (Harper Collins, 1994, p. 191).

Comparable Rules: The Rules of Etiquette

How many of you have heard these "rules" a time or two from your mothers?

Never wear a hat at the table.
Don't put your elbows on the table.
Don't talk with food in your mouth.

When I was a boy, I could never figure out why these "rules" were revered as though they had been inscribed in stone by the finger of God on a mountaintop somewhere. I wondered what the significant consequences were for breaking these, obviously ABSOLUTE rules. This is what I came up with:

Never wear a hat at the table, because it will cause irritable bowl syndrome.
Don't put your elbows on the table, because it will cause elbow cancer.
Don't talk with food in your mouth, because it will cause your teeth to fall out.

Now, please understand me, I am not saying that we should flout the Rules of Etiquette; what I am saying is that these "rules" are nothing more than preferences, and we need to make a distinction between "preferences" and actual "rights and wrongs."

So What's The Point?
The point is this: the rule that says that we are never to end a sentence with a preposition is a "just because" rule rather than having anything to do with actual syntax and good grammar. In other words, there is no legitimate consequence, grammatically speaking, for breaking this rule.

Never end a sentence with a preposition, because it will cause irritable syntax syndrome.

This "rule" is comparable to the "rule" that a man should not wear a hat at the table.

These are both preferences (not rules) that some people accept and some people spurn with equal diligence and energy.

With all of that said, I must confess that I am partial to the "rule" of not ending a sentence with a preposition (though I have ended a couple in this CT with prepositions, on purpose). However, I'm also partial to the rule that says, don't talk with food your mouth. Just a single experience of witnessing an adolescent boy talking with food in his mouth and "spraying" food with his words would make most people partial to this particular etiquette rule.

So, although, I am not adamant about this rule, it just, often, sounds better . . . but, it's only a preference and not a real rule. And, the word "Never" in this "rule" is far too strong.

Perhaps it should be written this way: Do not make a habit of ending sentences with prepositions.

Well, that's about all on this topic that I can think of.

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Free Class:
FFor those of you who might be interested: I have produced a lecture series on audio with notes. I cover the basics of good writing, grammar, punctuation, and more. I've had people with Master's degrees and PhDs go through these lectures, and some of them told me that they learned more on this subject from my lectures and notes than they had from all of their previous education combined. You can listen to the lectures for free and downlaod the lecture notes as PDFa files (for free) at CES Writing Protocols Lectures.


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