Terminal Prepositions (“Up With This I Will Not Put!”)

vintage-fountain-pen-4-1148656-mPreposition:  a preposition is a connecting word that shows the relation of a noun (or pronoun) to some other word in a sentence.  Example:  The main office is in Boston.” – The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer.

Oversimplified, many prepositions denote the location of something.  Examples:  Over, under, above, below, behind.  They also indicate time, such as:  before, after.

While none of what this humble blogger shares about writing well is new, all of it bears repeating so long as language missteps continue.  One is rigid compliance with the admonition to never end a sentence with a preposition.  Most of us learned that in ninth grade English class.  Back then we were English amateurs.  But now we are grown-ups.  We are more sophisticated users of the language.  Not only can we use contractions sometimes, it’s now OK for us to occasionally use a “terminal preposition.”  However, “moderation in all things” applies.

A few examples:

  • Correct:  “What are you talking about?”
  • Incorrect:  “About what are you talking?”
  • Correct:  “These are the repair instructions on which the mechanic relied.”
  • Also correct (and better): “These are the repair instructions the mechanic relied on.”
  • Correct:  “Thou hast no speculation in those eyes which thou dost glare with.” — William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Always sticking to the terminal preposition rule can tie you up in knots and lead to awkward speech and bad writing.  British Prime Minster Winston Churchill knew.  A biographer wrote that Churchill read where a junior civil servant awkwardly reworded a sentence to avoid ending it with a preposition.  The prime minister scrawled across the page: “This is nonsense up with which I will not put.” It sticks to the rule, alright.  And it’s silly.  Great writers — Churchill was one — have been ending sentences with prepositions for centuries (see Shakespeare example above).

Here’s a good guideline on whether it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition:  consider how formal your writing product is to be.  If you are composing, say, a master’s thesis, stick to the rule.  But if you are drafting something more familiar like a memo (depending on the recipient’s rank!), letter, or e-mail message, you can loosen up a little.

Want confirmation?  Then take a look at Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. It calls the preposition-at-end a “cherished  superstition.”

…take what you like and leave the rest.

Got time on your hands?  Watch this video from Left-Side Right-Side Games.


About 1956waterkey

Senior public relations/communication professional. Areas of focus are strategic communication planning and written communication products (messaging, talking points, speeches, annual reports, white papers, issue advocacy, etc.). Avid reader. Deep into classical and jazz music. Trombone player.
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