There’s an old joke that goes something like this:
Some cowboys are mingling at the bar when an Oxford graduate walks in. “Howdy, stranger,” one cowboy says. “Where are you from?”
The Oxford graduate answers, “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with a preposition.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” replies the cowboy. “Where are you from, jackass?”
This joke is second in notoriety only to the line attributed to Winston Churchill, who, upon being corrected for putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, said, “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I shall not put.”
Of all the grammatical “rules” we’ve looked at so far, this rule that you’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition has the most staying power. That is, most people believe it to be a proper and legitimate rule even if they don’t follow it themselves.
The “Rule” against Prepositions
The rule, as generally understood, is that given the option between ending a sentence with a preposition and not doing so, you should elect not to do so and use a prepositional phrase or relative clause1 relative clause, noun: 1: an adjective clause introduced by a relative pronoun expressed or suppressed, relative adjective, or relative adverb and having either a purely descriptive force (as in John, who often tells fibs) or a limiting one (as in boys who tell fibs) 2: a substantive clause introduced by an indefinite relative (as in he belittles whatever his sister tries to do (“relative clause,” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/relative%20clause. Accessed 9/24/2022) instead. For example:
|DON’T Write||DO Write|
|Who are you going to the store with?||With whom are you going to the store?|
|Where is he moving to?||To where is he moving?2If you want to be really fancy, you can even write “Whither is he moving?”|
|This golf club is my favorite to play with.||This golf club is my favorite with which to play.|
|That’s the best idea I’ve heard of.||That’s the best idea of which I’ve heard.|
|Do you have enough light to see by?||Do you have enough light by which to see?|
You may have noticed something about all the sentences in the right column: they sound ridiculous and unnatural. By contrast, the sentences on the left sound wholly natural and trip easily off the tongue.
So, where did we get this idea that it’s improper to end a sentence with a preposition?
Many scholars credit the origin of this rule to the 17th-century poet John Dryden, who in 1672 criticized the work of Ben Jonson, noting, “The preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him.” However, linguist Nuria Yáñez-Bouza discovered that several decades before Dryden, an obscure grammarian named Joshua Poole took a similar position in his book The English Accidence. Poole did not forbid prepositions at the end of sentences per se but did argue that they should be placed in “their naturall order.” And so it seems that Poole created the rule, and Dryden popularized it.3https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/prepositions-ending-a-sentence-with
But where did they get the idea from? Excuse me, from where did they get the idea?
Once again, the culprit is Latin.
The Roman Empire Never Died
The legacy and reach of Latin are enormous. As we discussed in the article on split infinitives, Latin was always viewed as a language of prestige and erudition (you wouldn’t think this if you could read some of the graffiti in Pompeii). Its hold on the minds of English grammarians, scientists, and philosophers was extensive.
In Latin, as you may have guessed, sentences don’t end in prepositions. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, much of the work done by prepositions in English is done by grammatical case endings in Latin. For example, the house is domus, and of the house is domi. There’s not a preposition to be found.
Second, in those other instances where prepositions are used in Latin, as in many languages, they aren’t strong enough to stand on their own—they are immediately followed by the noun or pronoun they govern, or they are appended to a pronoun.
|Who are you going with?||Quocum vadis?||*Quo vadis cum?|
|What chair are you sitting on?||Super quā sellā sedetis?||*Quā sellā sedetis super?|
|Who do you work for?||Pro quo laboras?||*Quo laboras pro?|
And so, because Latin couldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, these pedants decided that English shouldn’t do so.
A Germanic Heritage
But English can end sentences with a preposition and always has, as we can see in this example from Old English:
- gað ge beforon; ic eow cume æfter
- Go ye before, I you come after (i.e., I come after you)
English inherited this ability from the Germanic languages from which it descended. I’m sorry—which it descended from.
This phenomenon, called “preposition stranding,” is not found outside Germanic languages but is found frequently in them.
If you’ve ever taken German, for example, you’ve probably noticed that all kinds of sentences end with prepositions:
|Er nimmt sein Hut auf.||He picks his hat up.|
|Kommst du Hans mit?||Are you coming with Hans?|
|Er geht sonntags aus.||He goes out on Sundays.|
A Better Rule
So, is a preposition something you can end a sentence with? Yes.
The rule that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition is bunk—and no rule at all. But does that mean you should always end your sentences with a preposition when given the opportunity? No.
As always, this is a question of style and context. If you’re writing in a formal context, you’ll be better served with the more traditional construction:
- This topical solution is the best product with which to treat the patient’s skin condition.
But if you’re writing in an informal context or writing dialogue, then you’ll want to follow the patterns of natural English speech:
- This solution is the best product to treat the patient’s skin condition with.
So, write in the style that makes the most sense and trust your judgment. As long as clarity and stylistic appropriateness are followed, you’ll be fine. And remember: rules created by obscure seventeenth-century grammarians are not anything you should worry about.