For today’s Grammar Time, we’ll be discussing ending sentences with prepositions.
Were you ever taught that ending a sentence with a preposition was a big no-no? Unfortunately for all the English teachers out there, this “rule” is actually a myth. But if this isn’t actually a rule, why have generations of teachers drilled their students on it, and where did it originate?
Origin of the Myth
Hundreds of years ago, English was considered the language of the common man (and was considered less desirable), while Latin was the language of the elite and the educated. When early grammar books for the English language were published, their authors often decided that English should follow Latin’s supposedly superior grammar rules.
This particular myth about prepositions was started by a 17th-century English poet named John Dryden. His argument was that since Latin doesn’t allow prepositions at the end of sentences, English sentences shouldn’t end with prepositions either.
Perpetuating the Myth
As a result, generations of schoolchildren were taught that sentences like “To whom did you give the book?” were correct, proper English, while sentences like “Who(m) did you give the book to?” were incorrect and ungrammatical. But when was the last time you heard anyone actually say anything as awkward as “To whom did you give the book”?
The perfect example of just how awkward this rule can be is demonstrated in a quote that is frequently attributed to Winston Churchill, although the actual originator is unknown: “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
Breaking the Myth
Trying too hard to avoid ending sentences with prepositions can have extremely awkward results—just look at this example: “Paid for the dress had been.” (Yoda, anyone?) In most cases, you can end sentences with prepositions with impunity—there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s acceptable to say “The dress has been paid for.”
However, because this myth has been taught for so long, it’s still a rule that you should be aware of in certain circumstances. Sentences that avoid terminal prepositions by using phrases like “to whom” and “for which” sound much more formal, so it’s perfectly acceptable to avoid ending sentences with prepositions in formal writing—as long as doing so doesn’t leave you sounding like Yoda.
Note: In the case of the example above, you could simply avoid potential passive voice so the sentence reads something like “I paid for the dress” or “You don’t have to pay for the dress.” But you shouldn’t be marked down for concluding sentences with a preposition.