Go Ahead, Put that Preposition at the End!
Commenting on one of my posts about prepositions, Annette writes:
When did the rule about ending the sentence with a preposition change? It’s always been one of my pet peeves (in written word more than spoken) because we learned it was wrong in high school grammar…. but now I’m reading that it’s acceptable?
Could all our English teachers have been wrong?
No grammarian can be more cantankerous than H.W. Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage), but here is what he says about prepositions at the end of a sentence:
It is a cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late…be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern.
He says Dryden, Gibbon, and Ruskin spread the notion that English sentences must never end with a preposition.
Dryden was so steeped in a classical education that he sometimes translated his sentences into Latin before writing them down in English.
Gibbon was so determined not to end a sentence with a preposition that he avoided ending them with adverbs that looked like prepositions. For example, words like on, over, off, and under may be either prepositions or adverbs, depending on their function in the sentence,
He ran after the wagon and jumped on.
“on” is an adverb telling where
He left on the horse he rode in on.
“on” is possibly a preposition, but would the sentence be improved by writing He left on the horse on which he rode in? We still have a word that looks like a preposition ending the sentence.
Would it really improve an idiomatic sentence like What did you do that for? to rewrite it as For what did you do that?
We’ve all heard how Churchill rebuked the secretary who revised the great man’s sentences to avoid ending them with prepositions:
This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
The sentence is funny and succeeds in poking fun at the over-venerated rule, but the expression “put up with” is a phrasal verb that means “endure” or “suffer.”
Idiomatic English makes use of many such verb phrases:
ask out George wants to ask Mary out.
add up These figures just don’t add up.
As writers we need to be aware of the rules of our medium and strive not to write anything barbaric, i.e., unidiomatic. We need to be alert to differences between formal and informal expression, but whether we are writing a scientific treatise or an irreverent novel, we need to stay true to our instinctive grasp of our native language.
I’ll give Fowler the last word:
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 respect of elegance or inelegance, every example must be judged not by any arbitrary rule, but on its own merits, according to the impression it makes on the feeling of educated English readers.
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