Prepositions at the Ends of Sentences: Further Explanation
of Why the "Rule" Is Wrong

by Tina Blue
September 4, 2000

      My article entitled "It's Usually Not Wrong to End a Sentence with a Preposition" caused some consternation to those who were taught grammar according to rigid rules. For those people, and for those who are in a position where they must justify (to an editor or a teacher, for example) the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence, I am supplying references to a number of highly respected experts in the field of modern usage.

       The "grammarian's grammarian," H.W. Fowler, published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926. (It is kept up to date with periodic revisions. All page references in this article are to A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965].) This work is considered a standard reference, often used as the arbiter when questions of grammar and usage produce conflicting answers. This book is quite forceful about the silliness of the "rule" that one must not end a sentence with a preposition:

     It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late. . . . The fact is that. . . . even now immense pains are sometimes expended in changing spontaneous into artificial English. . . . Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are 'inelegant' are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards. The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained. . . .
In avoiding the forbidden order, unskillful handlers of words often fall into real blunders. . . . (473-474)

      In the same section of the book, Fowler explains that "the 'preposition' is in fact [often] the adverbial particle of a phrasal verb, [and] no choice is open to us; it cannot be wrested from its partner" (475).

      Here is what Edward D. Johnson, another modern expert, from this side of the Atlantic, says in The Handbook of Good English (N.Y.: Facts on File Publications, 1982. All page references are to this edition.): "Note that it is permissible to end a sentence with a preposition, despite a durable superstition that it is an error" (283).

       In Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1999. All page references are to this edition.), Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis have entitled their fourth chapter "Things You Know That Just Ain't So." In this chapter they take up the final preposition problem (with a nod to Fowler as the acknowledged master of English grammarians everywhere):

"Like the imagined rule against splitting infinitives, the notion that it's somehow wrong to end a sentence (or a clause) with a preposition likely grew out of early grammarians' attempts to force English to follow the rules of Latin . . . . Henry Fowler, the grammarian's grammarian, settles the issue best. . . . [What follows is a quotation from the passage I have already quoted at length from A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.]

   In Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose (N.Y.: Broadway Books, 1999. All page references are to this edition.) Constance Hale says, "Can we bury the schoolmarm's rule, 'Never end a sentence with a preposition,' once and for all? . . .When prepositions and verbs are joined at the hip, it is folly to separate them" (109-110).

      Even usage handbooks commonly employed in high school and college classrooms (e.g., those published by Harbrace, Little Brown, and Prentice Hall) say quite clearly that it is acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. The simple truth, as Fowler explains, is that the "preposition" in a phrasal verb is not really a preposition at all, but rather an adverbial particle, and in their attempts to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, "unskillful handlers of words" commit some real blunders! .
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