In the previous post, we dealt with the myth that infinitives should not be split. Although there is no grammatical basis for this rule, teachers, writers, and editors continue to espouse it, and even those who know it is not true admit that they look on split infinitives unfavorably and judge their own or other writing containing split infinitives as an error.
This post will look at another myth, the popular rule that a sentence should never end in a preposition. The origin of this rule is unclear, but some resources believe it comes from the language experts who were developing rules of English grammar but were using Latin grammar as a basis. Merriam-webster.com states that the grammarian Joshua Poole may have been the first one to propagate this rule in a 1646 book, but that the poet John Dryden popularized it in a 1672 poem. The two languages are very different, however; they are not even in the same family – Latin is a Romance language, while English is a Germanic one. Prepositions in Latin can be part of phrases, but they also appear attached to other parts of speech and thus cannot be separated.
In English, prepositions are words that show the relationship of a noun or pronoun to some other word in the sentence. The relationships can be position (in, on, under, above), direction (to, from, up, down), time (before, during, after, until), as well as many different kinds of relationships, such as a pound of tea, a letter for me, a story about war.
Prepositions introduce a prepositional phrase, a group of words that begins with a preposition and usually ends with a noun or pronoun, called the object of the preposition. (In the examples above, the objects are underlined.)
Prepositional phrases function as adjectival or adverbial modifiers, and just like single word adjectives or adverbs, they modify or describe words in a sentence.
Take this sentence: The squirrel ran quickly.
Quickly is an adverb describing how the squirrel ran.
We can add a prepositional phrase as an additional modifier:
The squirrel ran quickly up the tree.
The prepositional phrase is further modifying the verb ran to say where it ran.
Sometimes using a prepositional phrase instead of the single work modifier is a matter of stylistic choice, but sometimes we need prepositional phrases to express meanings that cannot be expressed by a single adjective or adverb. Consider the chart below.
prepositional phrase as modifier
single word modifier
a glass for water
a water glass
a glass for milk
*a milky glass
We walked with care.
We walked carefully.
We traveled by train.
*We traveled trainly.
In these examples, there is no proper adjective or adverb that can take the place of the prepositional phrases, which is why the sentences are marked with an asterisk, showing that it is not a proper sentence in Standard English. (Examples from English 3200.)
Kimberly Joki of grammarly.com, the grammar and language support program, writes that ending a sentence with a preposition is “OK” in informal writing or conversation, but not in formal writing. She provides the following illustrations:
Which journal was your article published in? (informal or casual)
In which journal was your article published. (formal)
Her second point for when it is not “OK” to end a sentence with a preposition is when something is missing. The example she provides is
He walked down the street at a brisk pace, with his waistcoat buttoned against the cold and a jaunty top hat perched atop.
In this case, I disagree with her reasoning. Though atop an infrequently seen word, in the example sentence, it is not functioning as a preposition, but as a prepositional adverb. Prepositional adverbs are adverbs that function as prepositions but are not followed by an object, so it is perfectly fine for it to appear alone. Atop is modifying the verb perched, describing where the hat is located.
Loki “corrects” what she feels is an example of the wrong use of a preposition at the end of the sentence by finishing the example with a prepositional phrase:
He walked down the street at a brisk pace, with his waistcoat buttoned against the cold and a jaunty top hat perched atop his stately head. In this sentence, the prepositional phrase is acting as an adverbial modifier, answering the same question where.
Discussions of the myth that a sentence should never end with a prepositions often provide a quote that is attributed to Winston Churchill and said to be his reaction when a subordinate edited his writing to rework his sentences that ended in a preposition:
“This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Though this sentence is an amusing illustration of the awkwardness that can arise from following the rule, Ben Zimmer writes that it is actually a case of fake attribution. In his research of occurrences of the quote and the anecdote, he could find no authoritative citation for its source. In addition, he found almost a dozen versions of the quote on the Internet, but he could find no entry for prepositions in the indexes of a dozen Churchill biographies.
People continue to believe (and sometimes to teach) the myth that sentences should never end in a preposition, despite the fact that usage books for over a hundred years have debunked this as a grammatical rule. As with split infinitives, this practice is a matter of style, a personal preference, rather than a matter of grammar.