Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

What are your feelings on terminal prepositions?

Oh, this is an easy one. The “rule” against ending a sentence with a preposition is an age-old bugaboo.

Consider these perfectly natural English sentences:

  • “Which pocket did you leave the keys in?”
  • “What exit should I get off at?”
  • “Here’s that store I told you about.”*
  • “Please, come in.”
  • “I didn’t see which street she went down.”*
  • “No, that’s not the one I was thinking of.”

Someone even invented a sentence with five terminal prepositions: A little girl asked her father to read her a bedtime story, but when he came back upstairs with the wrong book she said, “What did you bring that book I don’t want to be read to out of up for?”

OK, so that one is a bit contrived, but you see my point. Prepositions at the end of sentences are extremely common and perfectly comprehensible, and attempts to “fix” them often backfire. For example:

  • “In which pocket did you leave the keys?”
  • “At what exit should I get off the highway?”
  • “Here’s that store about which I told you.”
  • “Please, come in here.”
  • “I didn’t see down which street she went.”
  • “No, that’s not the one of which I was thinking.”
  • “For what reason did you bring up the book out of which I do not want you to read to me?”

Some of these examples are more laughable than others, but all of them result in stilted language or, at best, adding words for the sake of adding words.

In formal writing—a PhD thesis, a legal document—readers might expect you to avoid terminal prepositions, and so rather than fight with your boss and all the people who write you letters, you might give in. But know that they don’t have a leg to stand on, so you have my blessing to end a sentence with any damn thing you want.

And by the way, although it illustrates the point quite well to tell someone that this is the kind of pedantry up with which you will not put, please don’t attribute the phrase to Winston Churchill. That quote appears to be apocryphal.

Edit: The two asterisked examples were replaced after the post was originally published, for reasons I explained in a followup post.


13 comments on “Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

  1. Thank you for helping to dispel this grammar shibboleth! I hate these “fake” rules.

  2. […] the point of my last post is still perfectly sound, it appears I goofed with at least one of the sample sentences I […]

  3. I always thought it was a grammar myth, but I’m seeing bloggers who write about grammar, writing, and English who claim it is wrong.

  4. While I agree with everything you had to say about prepositions, there’s one little comment that I’d like to nitpick on (see what I did there?):

    “so you have my blessing to end a sentence with any damn thing you want”

    Thank you for the blessing, but actually not every category of word can appear at the end of a sentence. Determiners, for instance, can never come sentence-finally, e.g. it’s not grammatical to say *She lives in house a.

  5. Follow-up comment: My example wasn’t very good. Most sentence-final prepositions get there because the noun phrase next to them was moved to a different position in the sentence.

    You are writing with what?
    With what are you writing? (move preposition)
    What are you writing with? (strand preposition)

    Both are grammatical, but the prescriptive rule is to use the one where you move the preposition. You can’t end up with sentence-final determiners this way. In contrast to prepositions, when a noun moves you have to move the determiner too.This is a better example:

    I left the cake on the table
    The cake, I left on the table
    *Cake, I left on the table the

    • This is not to poke fun at you, Ms. Linguischtick, but to note down an observation. The examples sound like they came from Yoda. Honestly, they’re really good examples, or should I say, “I honestly think that they’re really good examples” instead? Sounds like a good topic to post about, Ms. B.

    • Your point is sound, but I was actually just going for a bit of humorous hyperbole. You also can’t end a sentence with a comma, for example, but I hope everyone understands that if a sentence disregards everything they know about English sentence structure, it’s probably not grammatical.

      And just to clarify for anyone who may be confused, there is one way to grammatically get a determiner at the end of a sentence, and that’s to not use it as a determiner, but as the name of a word. For example: “That sentence would be improved if the writer included a ‘the.'” In this case, “the” doesn’t mean “the,” with all its normal grammatical implications, it means “the word ‘the.'”

      • Hmmm…that’s a tricky case. I would argue that the is syntactically a noun in your example, and not a determiner. As you point out, that sentence is grammatical, and it is not otherwise grammatical in English for those two determiners to follow each other, nor is it grammatical to have a determiner without a following noun phrase. If you analyze the as a determiner, then you end up with an ungrammatical structure; you can only “save” it if you analyze the as a noun. In strictly syntactic terms, that isn’t an example of a sentence-final determiner.

        Even semantically, it’s questionable that it’s a determiner: the carries particular semantic information – a familiarity presupposition – that I don’t think the word the carries in your example. That the feels more like a nominal. It’s like a referring expression that picks out another lexical item in English.

        I’m nitpicking of course (what else do we do on grammar blogs?). And your point is taken – the meaning-use distinction allows us to put practically anything into that position.

        • Right, I think we’re just agreeing here. You can come up with a grammatical sentence that ends with a word that is often a determiner, but only if it’s not actually functioning as a determiner.

          I expect my readers have pretty widely varied levels of expertise, and I didn’t want anyone who’s closer to the 101 level to see your perfectly valid comment, think, “Oh, but I can totally find a way to put ‘the’ at the end!” and disregard the rest of the comment.

  6. […] start a sentence with a conjunction, you ninny,” they might huff. “Really? Ending a sentence with a preposition? I thought you were smarter than that,” they may sneer. And all too often, they look to me […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: