My recent post, “Lies Your English Teacher Told You,” received an overwhelming response, triggering more than 54,000 hits and hundreds of comments.
As I expected, the idea of not ending a sentence with a preposition generated the most passionate responses, so let me review some key topics:
1. My credentials
Although most readers were supportive, a few questioned my ability to proclaim that writers can end sentences with prepositions. I don’t expect you to trust an unknown blogger. Here are reputable sources that agree with my view:
“Contrary to popular belief, it is not a mortal sin to end a sentence with a preposition, as long as the sentence sounds natural and its meaning is clear. . . . It is absolutely antiquated to forbid ending a sentence with a preposition.”
— The Grammar Bible (2004)
“The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.”
— Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002)
“A preposition at the end of a sentence can be a sign that the sentence is awkwardly constructed. The branch office is where she was at. However, if a preposition falls naturally at the end of a sentence, leave it there. (‘I don’t remember which file I saved it under.’)”
— Handbook of Technical Writing, Ninth Edition (2009)
Many famous writers have ended sentences with prepositions. Just look at Hamlet’s soliloquy by William Shakespeare, who ends each stanza with a preposition:
By a sleep to say we end
The heartaches and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.
Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death–
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns– puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
2. Grammar vs. style
Although there is no grammar rule about sentence-ending prepositions, some readers aptly pointed out that in some cases they are a matter of style. As mentioned in the earlier handbook example, a sentence that is awkward or unclear with the preposition at the end should be recast.
3. Breaking the rules
Some people mistakenly interpreted the blog post as permission to break writing rules. No! I was clarifying that certain so-called rules are actually myths. Most writing rules are in place to enhance communication, so I don’t advocate abandoning them in workplace writing. Creative writing is another matter.
4. The audience
Even if you feel comfortable ending sentences with prepositions, keep in mind audience preferences. Some of my readers said they are annoyed by such sentences, even if there is no rule about then. Certainly if you are writing a paper for an instructor or boss who hates sentence-ending prepositions, avoid using them!
5. Evolving language
One Canadian reader pointed out that English seems to evolve faster in the United States. He said that the Canadian journalism stylebook still forbids prepositions at the ends of sentences. I checked the two leading American journalism stylebooks; neither mentions the rule.
Some readers pointed out that it would be impractical to avoid prepositions at the ends of sentences in certain circumstances, including questions
Where are you from?
and sentences where the preposition is part of a noun or verb:
After hearing the obscene caller on the other end of the phone, I hung up.
A few readers questioned my choice of the word lies in the title. I didn’t mean to suggest a conspiracy by English teachers to deceive students; I think in most cases the propagation of the rules is an honest mistake. In other cases, the teachers are probably trying to get students to avoid lazy habits like starting too many sentences with and. But in the end, I have to question why the teachers didn’t notice the absence of the rules in their textbooks (and the presence of violations of the rules in works by established writers) and yet still pounded the rules into students’ minds so effectively that many years later in my college classroom, the myths are among the few rules students remember consistently.
In school, I had teachers who would forbid students from starting sentences with but or using to be verbs. Such exercises strengthened my writing. However, my teachers always made it clear that the restrictions weren’t permanent rules, merely parts of practice exercises. I’m encouraging today’s teachers to do the same. (Trust me — I know they’re already doing a difficult job for low pay, and I wouldn’t trade places with them!)
A few readers wanted a clearer explanation of split infinitives. An infinitive is to plus a verb:
I embedded my examples in the lesson itself:
to boldly to
to gently split