What may you end a sentence with?

rogersgeorge on November 2nd, 2011

(I use “may” in the sense of “permission,” not as a weak version of “might.”)

We all have heard the prohibition: “Never end a sentence with a preposition.”Recently someone commented twice on this blog, both times on the subject of sentence-ending prepositions. I get too few comments to satisfy my narcissistic nature, and this person was kind and alert enough to comment more than once, so I feel the subject merits a fuller discussion. I hope he sees this post. (I think it’s a “he.” The reader uses a pseudonym.)

First, a bit of history. This proscription seems to have descended from English teachers who loved Latin too much. The same folks who said you shouldn’t split an infinitive (to boldly go, for example), which is verboten in Latin. I confess I’ve never studied Latin (Greek and German, yes), but I take it you mustn’t ever end a Latin sentence with a preposition. English belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, and terminal prepositions are fine in German. They are called separable verbs. See the fourth point, below.

Second, a bit of apocrypha. A young aide is said to have corrected Sir Winston Churchill for ending a sentence with a preposition. Sir Winston is said to have replied, “Impertinence, young man, is something up with which I will not put.”

Winnie staring down an aide

Third, a bit of style. A sentence with one o’ them there preposition thingies at the tail end is more casual than a sentence constructed using something such as “with which” or “for whom.” I shall add that formality has its place; but see the rule at the end.

Finally, a bit of grammar. Those prepositions at the end of sentences are used as adverbs. When you see a sentence with a preposition at the end, the preposition goes with the verb; it doesn’t have the feel of missing an object. Take a look at the title of this post. “With” is telling you how.

My conclusion, the rule: Write whatever flows the most smoothly, what your reader will absorb with the least effort and with the least likelihood of misunderstanding. Write so your reader thinks about the content, not the writing.

My thanks again to the person who stimulated this post. If you comment, you might give me something to post about.

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