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The Dangling Preposition

Never end a sentence with a preposition

There are many rules of grammar we are taught in childhood that stick with us when we become adults. We may not remember the why, but we remember the what.

But not all rules are really rules. Some are misremembered. Some mistaught. Others misapplied.

They stay in our minds and colour how we use language through life. How we use language incorrectly.

These are:

The Seven Sins of Syntax

The Sin

Prepositions are often confused with conjunctions. Both connect two separate words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence.

Conjunctions connect things linguistically. They show the grammatical relationship between words: their hierarchy and dependency. Common conjunctions include but, for, since, because, and therefore.

Prepositions connect things literally. They describe how words or phrases fit relative to space, time, and each other. Common prepositions – and there are around 150 in the English language – include above and below, on and off, by and with, and in and out.

For example:

I do like to be beside the seaside.

Beside the seaside is where I like to be.

For there to be a relationship described, there must be an object following the preposition. In the examples above, ‘the seaside’ is the object and ‘beside the seaside’ is a prepositional phrase.

We are taught that ending a sentence with a preposition is a sin because it doesn’t allow for an object to come afterwards. Instead, it leaves what is known as a dangling (or stranded or hanging) preposition.

Not So Sinful

As with the rule about never splitting the infinitive, the hatred for the dangling preposition comes from the love of our language’s Latin origins.

The structure of Latin words and grammar makes ending with a preposition syntactically impossible. English doesn’t follow the same structure as Latin. But in deference to the language seen by some as superior – being the language of the Bible of course – the rule was seen to have importance. Its use a sign of a better, more educated person.

The dangling preposition has always had its advocates and its detractors.

Shakespeare, Swift and Pope consistently left their prepositions hanging. Poet John Dryden and the influential Bishop of Oxford, John Lowth, called it ‘false syntax’.

You may wonder why anyone cared what a Bishop thought but in the 18th century, his word carried a great deal of influence. Lowth ordered examples of the dangling preposition to be removed from existing works of literature, including the King James Bible. In 1762, he wrote his strong opinions in a A Short Introduction to English Grammar: a text that was to become the manual for grammar taught in schools.

Though this strong feeling remains and has been passed down through generations as fact, it is just opinion.

There is no grammatical reason in the English language that stops you ending a sentence with a preposition.

Committing More Sins

No rule, no sin.

In fact, trying to adhere to such a rule can result in sentences that are clunky, verbose, and highly unnatural.

For example:

Deemed incorrect: Who are you going to the party with?

Deemed correct: With whom are you going to the party?

This is probably where the argument comes up most often. ‘With whom…’ is not so bad, but it doesn’t reflect how real people really speak.

Deemed incorrect: That’s the book I was talking about.

Deemed correct: That’s the book about which I was talking.

This takes it to the next level and sounds like you’re trying really really hard to be clever.

Deemed incorrect: He needs to put his coat on.

Deemed correct: He needs to put his coat on his body.

A slightly different take: this one is an example of the unspoken being perfectly acceptable.

There’s no sign that this argument will ever go away. When it comes down to it, you may do as you prefer. There are more things to get angry about. Or about which to get angry.

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