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Dr. Goodword's Office

Will I be Arrested if I End a Sentence with a Preposition?

Dr. Goodword (Robert Beard, PhD, Linguistics)

A Southerner stopped a stranger on the Harvard campus and asked, "Could you please tell me where the library is at?" The stranger responded, "Educated people never end their sentences with a preposition." The overly polite Southerner then apologetically repeated himself: "Could you please tell me where the library is at, you jerk?"

While editing the proof of one of his books, Winston Churchill spotted a sentence that had been clumsily rewritten by the editor to eliminate a preposition at the end. The elder statesman mocked the intention with a comment in the margin: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."

These two anecdotes reflect an intolerance on both sides of the Atlantic for the rule prohibiting sentence-final prepositions. So where did the rule come from, anyway?

Before the science of language, linguistics, schools and universities taught what is known as 'prescriptive grammar'. Prescriptive grammar is not grammar (the rules of spoken language) at all but a list of "do's and don'ts" prescribing the way those in or striving for the upper class should talk. Because all upper-class private schools of the time emphasized, if not required Latin, 'good' grammar was presumed to be grammar that emulated Latin grammar.

The problem is, English is not Latin, an insight lost on prescriptivists. Latin has cases and every Latin preposition is associated with a case. For example, the word for "wine" in Latin is vinum. However, the prepositional phrase corresponding to "in wine" is in vino (as in 'in vino veritas'; 'wine brings out the truth') ending on the Ablative case marker, -o, because in was associated with the Ablative case. So the suffix of vin-o identifies the noun vin-um as the object of the preposition in and not the object of any other preposition in the sentence; in short, they go together.

Because sentences usually contain several prepositional phrases like this (e.g., "A relative of the fruitfly was doing something like the backstroke in the wine on the table in the library."), it is important to keep up with which noun goes with which preposition. The easiest way to do that is by a rule that prepositions are never separated from their object noun (or noun phrase if the noun is modified by adjectives). Latin has that rule.

Believing that Latin grammar represents grammatical perfection and unintimidated by the onerous task of molding English in the image of Latin, prescriptive grammarians proscribed the use of prepositions anywhere other than immediately before their object noun. For example, one should not say "the prescriptivist John clashed with," but rather "the prescriptivist with whom John clashed", not "the rule John laughed at," but "the rule at which John laughed".

The fact of the matter is, however, English simply does not have case endings on nouns that are objects of prepositions, so the reason for keeping prepositions and their object nouns together is wholly irrelevant to English. You may keep them together or not. You'll never spend a night in jail either way. However, because of the upper-class bias in the rule's history, its use now makes you sound pretentious: "the chap in whom I invested my trust". (Is that you? It isn't me; nor was it Winston Churchill.)

This example teaches us two important lessons about language. First, each and every language has its own set of grammatical rules and everyone who speaks that language knows what they are in his or her region. (They do vary slightly from region to region--big deal.) That is what speech is: the use of grammatical rules to express oneself. Second, prescriptive grammar is based on misconceptions about language and causes far more mischief than good.

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