Grammar hit or myth? Prepositions ending sentences

close up of British policeman lego figure with truncheonGrammar is about the rules that structure language. Knowing and using grammar effectively is a sure-fire way to make sure you are understood, which is always useful.

But there are various erroneous ‘rules’ of grammar masquerading as law out there. Beware these blighters: they could have you needlessly rewording perfectly good sentences.

In the first of a new series, we separate fact from fiction, sorting the grammar hits from the grammar myths.

Is it a rule? You can’t end a sentence with a preposition

Prepositions are words that show how other parts of the sentence relate to each other in space or time, eg about, after, at, before, between, in, into, on, over, to, with etc. A commonly held belief is that ending a sentence with a preposition is incorrect. For example, instead of writing, ‘Whom did you send the memo to?’, it should be ‘To whom did you send the memo?’.

Answer: myth

Commonly held it may be, but it is also without any real basis. Yet, despite it being regularly debunked by grammarians, there still seem to be many people desperately clinging to this one like a shipwrecked Kate Winslet to a floating door.

The simple fact is that it can be very unnatural – sometimes impossible – to end a sentence with anything but a preposition. Consider how many phrasal verbs ending in prepositions the English language has (fall out, get back, let in, put up, take off, take on, turn up, up to, work out, and so on). Splitting them up would lead to madness, or at least nonsense. Can’t you hear the teacher trying to push this rule? ‘No, no, Smith. It should be “Hey man, to what have you been up?”’

More to the point, there’s no reason to attempt such awkward rephrasing. Essentially, this long-standing superstition is a simple case of opinion that somehow gathered a reputation as truth. The culprit behind it may either be seventeenth century poet John Dryden, who cited it as a fault in order that he could criticise other poets, or eighteenth century clergyman Robert Lowth. Neither of whom actually strictly adhered to this supposed rule himself.

Indeed, Lowth commented that this was a form ‘our language is strongly inclined to’ (note the final preposition), saying only that avoiding ending on a preposition ‘agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.’ Hardly the eleventh Commandment. Yet, a mere century later, it had been converted to grammar gospel.

It almost makes you wonder what other arbitrary rules we could create for future generations out of mere whim. No starting sentences with a gerund? No pronouns on a Tuesday? Well, it’s something to think about.

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