Word Matters Podcast

Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition?

Word Matters, Episode 37

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It's one of the most notorious grammar peeves in the entire English language: the commandment that one shall not ever end a sentence with a preposition. But is it actually a rule that holds up? Hmm...

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, what you're not supposed to end a sentence with. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Of all the various grammar dicta that get meted out, the one about never ending a sentence with a preposition seems to have a special place in the grammar dicta pantheon. Well, as our repeat listeners will surely expect, its vaunted position is in need of adjustment. Here's Ammon Shea with a chisel.

Ammon Shea: A lot of the peeves that we come up against are fairly recent. Finalize is an inelegant word, comes from the early 20th century, even though the word itself has been around since the 1780s. We're constantly coming up with new peeves to replace the old ones. For instance, it used to be considered improper to use like as a coordinating conjunction: one should use the word such as and. And then we've kind of gotten rid of that as a peeve. And we've moved on to being upset that people, often thought to be young people, but in fact, everybody, use like in such roles as approximate of adverb, "Coney Island has got to be like 50 miles away from here," or as a quotative compartmentalizer. "And she was like, 'I'm going to fine you money if you don't stop saying like.'" So we've shifted that peeve. But there are other peeves which have really kind of stuck around and shown a staying power that is really remarkable. I think the longest-running thing, which we've been trying in vain to make people not do when they speak and write English and which they keep on doing, is that of ending a sentence with a preposition, preposition stranding terminal propositions. This is perhaps best exemplified by that old joke. Somebody from some state often described as Texas says, "Where are you from?" And the Harvard student says, "I am from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions." And so, the Texan or Oklahoman, or what have you, says, "Okay, where are you from, jackass?" Or some other deprecatory term.

And that's an old, old joke. It's not as old as the idea that we should not be stranding our prepositions at the end of a sentence, because that goes back to the 17th century. It's hundreds and hundreds of years old. We've been saying this in one way or another for well over 300 years and we show no signs of slowing down. Do you have a horse in this race?

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely not. It seems to me a native English syntax to end some sentences with a preposition.

Emily Brewster: In my family, this was a common topic of discussion. I've mentioned before that I grew up in a family that talked about grammar a lot and ending a sentence in a preposition was something that was discussed. And so, it would be pointed out when we heard people do it, and it was definitely prescribed against, but there are certain cases where you kind of have to, like the example you just said, "Where are you from?" Nobody should say, "From where are you? From whence come thou?" There's nothing natural about that kind of speech.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely not. Well, one of the things that I've seen, and I think this is a kind of post-hoc explanation of rationalizing why you shouldn't end a sentence in a preposition, I've seen people kind of broaden this to say one should not end a sentence with a preposition or similarly insignificant word, meaning that one should end a sentence with a word of oomph. You want to end with a thud, rather than a is or a but or a from, which I don't quite honestly think has that much backing. For a long time, people thought that this came from Dryden, the poet, John Dryden, who said this, I believe, twice.

Emily Brewster: I believe it's from Dryden. Are you telling me it's not from Dryden?

Ammon Shea: Well-

Emily Brewster: Because Dryden has had this blame pinned on him, in my mind anyway, for a long time.

Ammon Shea: Dryden has had this the onus of responsibility for hundreds of years. He mentions it, again, twice. The first time was I think, 1672, he's passing judgment and he's talking trash about Ben Johnson's poetry. And he says, "The preposition at the end of the sentence, a common fault with him, in which I have, but lately observed in my own writings." And then he mentions it again. In 1691, he's writing to a different young poet. And he says, "I remember I hinted somewhat of concluding your sentences with prepositions or conjunctions sometimes, which is not elegant." And I think he republished his own book of poems in 1685, because he wanted to rearrange some of the prepositions and not put them at the end of his sentences. And for a long time, we've always blamed him. However, there is a recent development, which is that there's a professor at the Universida de Vigo named Nuria Yáñez-Bouza. She's a professor of linguistics, and she specializes in the history of English prescriptivism. And she in fact, wrote her PhD dissertation on preposition stranding. She found this book from 1646, which is well before Dryden started complaining about this, a book titled The English Accidents, and it was written by Joshua Poole, and he wrote about the importance of placing words quote, "in their natural order". And he advocated changing, "Whom did you give your book to?" to "To Whom did he give your book?" And, "This is a man I told you of, and of whom I told you." She really dug into this and found that when Dryden died, that he had a copy of one of Joshua Poole's books. It was a direct line between Poole and Dryden. And I don't believe that Poole emphatically argued against it, but neither really did Dryden. I mean, nobody really laid down a hard rule at the time, but we trace it to him. And I think that it seems entirely likely that this did originate before Dryden and goes back to Poole, which means that this is now in the first half of the 17th century. This is a very, very long tail for a kind of prescription that doesn't have that much basis in rational thinking.

Emily Brewster: Wow, that's exciting.

Peter Sokolowski: So it was in the air.

Neil Serven: Honestly, the fact that it's Dryden making this objection, almost makes you realize that this objection is not about practicality. It is about aesthetics. Right?

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Neil Serven: You talked about ending the sentence with a word of power or word that has substance to it, essentially being the object of the preposition or a verb, I suppose, if you were reorienting the sentence to avoid having the preposition be at the end. It's easy for Dryden to say this, Dryden who wrote poems and was not thinking so much about the practicality of communication when he was making this objection. Your first example was the one about, "Where are you from?" That's a completely idiomatic phrasing that we would use in speech, because that is how we think. We aren't thinking about putting the where at the end of something, saying, "You are from where?" We would not immediately grasp that, because it makes no sense. We would take the pronoun where, which is our first thought, and then the other words would then follow to say, "Where are you from?" It would just make perfect sense. It would be completely understood. And it would be really the most practical way of phrasing that. It doesn't have the concern of aesthetic that Dryden seems to have worried about.

Ammon Shea: It was very much an aesthetic concern, I think. And that was mirrored in the kind of grammarians who followed, because nobody came out at first and said, this is something you just can't do. They did say it was inelegant. So Bishop Lowth in his Short Introduction to English Grammar said that "this is an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to," placing a terminal preposition, but he thought it was more graceful to move it up in the sentence. And then similarly, we see that Noah Webster said that this practice is allowable in conversation. But in the "grave and sublime styles of writing," he thought it was inadmissible. But he's still acknowledging that this is something that the language has. And it wasn't really until 1783, that we saw more of a firm thing. Hugh Blair said, "we should avoid concluding sentences with an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word." So it still in a way is, even though it's advocating it as a rule, it's this broad thing. It's not just a proposition, it's an inconsiderable word, which I think is an aesthetic concern.

Emily Brewster: And a lot of these usage writers, we talked about Baker not too long ago, and his rules that he also had were not in his mind, and for many of these usage writers, were not rules. And they've been turned into rules. The consideration was about elegance of communication, wanting to write elegantly. This is aspiring to be a writer who will be read because the writing is beautiful, because of this beautiful writing. And somehow that aesthetic concern has gotten translated over the years into you don't know how to speak the language. You are a barbarian. You are abusing the language by using these words in this order.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: And I think that that concern for aesthetics is even in Strunk & White. Some people love Strunk & White. As a lexicographer, as a descriptivist, I find it tedious. But viewed through the lens of a concern with beautiful writing, with communicating in a way that is elegant and that is pleasurable to read, they look less like rules and more like guidance, which I think is, to be fair to these usage writers, is probably how they were intended.

Ammon Shea: It's an interesting point that you brought up Emily, because Hugh Blair, who said to avoid ending sentences with any inconsiderable words, he followed it up by saying such sentences are always enfeebling and degrading, which just sounds like a real judgment of style. And he finds them wanting. So it is a stylistic judgment. And I think you're entirely correct that then we've translated a stylistic judgment to one of grammatical judgment, which is something gets lost there. Because it's not a matter of grammar. Some people have tried to say, well, it was based on the idea that Latin could not finish the sentence with a preposition similarly to how you can not split the infinitive, et cetera, et cetera. And that this is represented as an attempt to enforce this sentence structure on English, which is of course not a Latinate structure language. But one of the things that's been funny about that is then once we've made this an imaginary rule, we start coming up with imaginary things to say about it. And one of the best known ones is one that was thoroughly debunked by our friend Ben Zimmer, which is the famous Winston Churchill quote in which he responds to somebody changing his prepositional order by saying, "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I shall not put." And Ben found of course, that this was not found in Churchill's writings. It was said by somebody else much before that. So we created this kind of mythology, even about making fun of the rule we were inventing. The whole thing is invented.

Peter Sokolowski: That's so fun to think about. "A bit of errant pedantry up with which I will not put," is the one that I remember.

Emily Brewster: We'll be back after this break with more. You're listening to Word Matters from Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Meanwhile, the terminal preposition, this dangling preposition, goes back to Old English, and it's actually required. It is really unnatural. In a bunch of different situations, W-H words are almost always at the front of questions in English. This is just their role. Like, "What are you doing? Where are you going? Why is this here?" So to try to avoid that is unnatural to English. And then also there are cases where relative clauses with that, for example, "It's near a river that we walked beside, it's near a river beside which we walked". That sounds terrible.

Ammon Shea: Strunk & White actually wrote "not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else." And most prescriptive guides that we have, the American Heritage Dictionary wrote "English syntax not only allows, but sometimes even requires final placement or the preposition." Everybody has really agreed on this, but it's become this zombie rule that then exists on. And so several years ago, I remember looking at the guides that some collegiate writing programs would put online. And there it is very, very common to see them telling students to avoid. This is often listed in a list of common errors. The webpage that I saw at the University of Iowa said "It has become acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition in conversational speech. Term papers, however, should not be written in conversational language," which is wrong in like five different levels.

Peter Sokolowski: That is outrageous.

Ammon Shea: It's such a shame to see on a writing program webpage.

Peter Sokolowski: It's heartbreaking.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, it really is.

Peter Sokolowski: Two thoughts about this. One is that there is, I think, a misunderstanding of what grammar is. First of all, the general public thinks spelling is grammar, and they think that phonetics are grammar. They think anything connected to language is grammar. Grammar is actually the natural syntax of a language, the natural way a language works, a kind of map of its function. It's not a set of rules that we try to squeeze it into. It's not a square peg in a round hole, and I think that's misunderstood. But also, I think this rule is particularly easy to absorb or understand, and then it's easy to replicate. It's easy to condemn it. The rule is sort of easy to repeat without any thought about actually putting it in practice.

Emily Brewster: But I have a question for each of my fellow editors. Do you avoid the terminal preposition in your writing?

Ammon Shea: Not at all.

Neil Serven: No.

Peter Sokolowski: In some-

Neil Serven: I'll only avoid if I thought I was using it in a forced way. I mean, if you think about it, what does the preposition do? Its function is to show relationship, the relationship to the object of the preposition. So the object of the preposition is a noun that you have a relationship with, and you're expressing a relationship of place, of time, of purpose, perhaps. When I say, "My hat is on the hook," hook is the object of the preposition. And I'm telling you where my hat is in relationship to that hook. In a lot of cases, between the subject and the object, you can put the preposition and have it sort of be in the middle. And the logical place of thought is like, I'm thinking of my hat. I'm thinking of where it is. It is on the hook. Now I visualize it hanging on the wall. But when you don't always know the object that you want to express, as you talk, sometimes you will say, "The river we're walking beside," like I think Emily mentioned, that is a completely natural use, because "the river besides which you walk" requires this torquing of language, torquing of thought that wouldn't naturally occur to you. So you would say, "The river that you walk beside," because you know where the river is, you know where you are. And then the idea of relationship sort of is what you are coming around to determining. And so, there are instances where we have this natural inclination to end with a preposition, because that relationship is what we're ultimately getting to, like I just said there.

Peter Sokolowski: But you're saying also in writing, you want to make it more explicit. And I will confess certainly Emily, that I would always just want to make sure everything is crystal clear. You could obviously say, "He put his hat on," full stop, and it's perfectly fine. But this, I don't think about anywhere near as much as split infinitives, which I think a lot of people notice and find an impediment to reading, because they notice it, and then they stop reading. They want to correct you. I love split infinitives. I think "to boldly go" is much more evocative than "to go boldly" or "boldly to go." But there are instances when I do think about I'll allow.

Emily Brewster: I think I used to avoid the terminal preposition more than I do now, because I can correct somebody on why they're wrong for correcting me for using a terminal preposition. And I didn't use to have that tool in my toolbox, but I feel like it's a rule that's relaxing, but maybe it's just me that's relaxing about the ruler that has relaxed about the rule.

Ammon Shea: Well, I find that like Robert Baker, who we referenced earlier, I quitted the school at an early age. So being unlettered in Robert Baker's words, I make all these errors. People like to think of as errors. I willfully split my infinitives and strand my prepositions and start sentences with every word under the sun you're not supposed to start. And I have no idea how to pronounce most words.

Emily Brewster: And yet you persist in being a published writer.

Ammon Shea: And yet, I persist in somehow being understood by most people I speak to. I think that terminal prepositions, as Peter said earlier, it's such an easily identifiable thing for most people kind of like starting a sentence with and or but. It's very clear that this is being done, that I think it's going to stick around for another 350 or 370 years.

Peter Sokolowski: As a kind of false rule.

Ammon Shea: As an easily misinterpreted rule, as a stylistic thing that's then being reified as grammatical in nature, even though it has really nothing to do with grammar, I think it's just easy enough to observe and scold, that it's very useful if you're interested in doing that sort of thing. I think it's much more difficult to take the kind of nuanced thing of not ending a sentence in an insignificant word, because what does that mean? Significant to you might not be significant to me.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: So that's much more difficult, but just saying can't put a preposition right before the little dot. It's kind of, any machine can figure that out.

Emily Brewster: One counter example of that is the increase in use over recent decades of phrase ending in at, "where is it at?" Like, "Where it's at." My sense is that "where it's at" has become far more common in edited text than it ever was before and that it is an idiom all its own. So it has stepped away from perhaps this terminal preposition structure and is now has this idiomatic function that gives it a kind of a hall pass to go into this territory that is otherwise shunned. But I think that is an interesting case of a terminal preposition that is becoming more widely accepted.

Ammon Shea: And Emily, you might just have a sense about this, but I trust your sense about these things more than I trust Robert Baker and his reflections on the English language. So I'm going with you on this.

Emily Brewster: That's very kind, thank you. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at NEPM.org. And for the word of the day and all your general and dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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