Occasionally, we grammar enthusiasts need to take a step back and lighten up a little bit. While there are some grammar rules that are hard and fast (I’m looking at you, comma splice), sometimes there is wiggle room (like the controversial claim that you can split infinitives). Today, we’re tackling another wiggly rule: is ending a sentence with a preposition okay?

Ending a Sentence With a Preposition

Well, guess what? I’m here to liberate your pens and tell you that it’s okay for your protagonist to ask her cheating boyfriend who he was just with.

What Is a Preposition?

First, a quick review: what is a preposition? These cats explain it pretty well.

What is a preposition?

To sum up:

The prepositions above show the cats’ locations in space. Let’s add to the fun with these prepositions that show location in time:

I fed the cats at seven this morning.

Pamela will clean the seven litter boxes in the evening.

After you pet the cats, wash your hands before you eat, please.

Is Ending a Sentence With a Preposition Bad?

Recently, we talked about the “rule” that you shouldn’t split infinitives and why it’s really okay.

The bottom line: a few centuries ago, when our grammar was a murky mess, some outspoken grammarians decided to apply Latin rules to English, regardless of whether that was a sensible choice.

In this case, dramatist John Dryden was the first to take up the pen against ending sentences with prepositions, way back in 1672. He claimed that since you can’t end a sentence with a preposition in Latin, you shouldn’t do it in English, either.

The Problem With Following the Rule

English isn’t Latin, though, and we structure our sentences very differently. It’s easy to construct perfectly logical and grammatically sound sentences whose only “fault” is that they end with prepositions.

Plus, when you try to “fix” these sentences, you can end up with some pretty crazy twists, like this quote often misattributed to Winston Churchill:

“This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!”

And as we recognize how arbitrary and baseless this rule was to begin with, we’ve moved away from strictly adhering to it. So if you’ve ever written yourself into a corner fretting over the preposition rule, breathe deep.

It’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition.

That being said, there are a few caveats.

When It’s NOT Okay to End a Sentence With a Preposition

If the meaning of the sentence is still clear without the ending preposition, then remove it.

In my hometown in the hills of western PA, it’s not uncommon to overhear someone on the phone asking, “Hey, where are you at?” “Where are you” doesn’t need any clarification, so cut that “at.”

Then again, it’s also not uncommon to overhear someone refer to a group of people as “yinz guys,” so I’d hardly claim my hometown as a beacon of good grammar and usage.

However, if the preposition is key to the sentence’s meaning, and moving it would cause unnecessary written acrobatics, it’s fine to end your sentence with the preposition. For example:

Carla wanted to run, but her feet refused. What was she waiting for?

Rewriting that last phrase would completely convolute the prose. No one asks, “For what was she waiting?” Come on now.

Ditch Dryden (Or Don’t)

Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition? Yep.

Is this claim controversial? You bet.

Still . . . maybe it’s time to rethink how much we pay attention to those Latin-obsessed 17th century introverts.

Have you heard the “rule” (*cough* myth) that ending a sentence with a preposition is a grievous error? Do you ever end sentences with prepositions? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Joe here. Liz couldn’t think of an exercise for this one so she put it in my hands. Big mistake, Bureman. Liz’s reverence for grammar is equal only to my mockery for it. So today we’re going to take the “it’s kind of okay to end your sentence with a preposition” rule to its logical conclusion.

Let’s end every sentence with a preposition.

Go to this list of prepositions if you need to, and try to write as many sentences ending with a preposition as you can in fifteen minutes. It’s okay if the sentences don’t go together, but you get bonus points for, one, the funniest sentence and, two, the best imitation of a Western Pennsylvanian.

When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section along with how many prepositions you used.

Good luck, yinz guys!

Alice Sudlow and Liz Bureman
Alice Sudlow and Liz Bureman

Alice Sudlow has a keen eye for comma splices, misplaced hyphens, and well-turned sentences, which she puts to good use as the content editor of The Write Practice and Short Fiction Break literary magazine. Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. She tweets @epbure (but not about writing). Together, they demystify the intricacies of English grammar and keep Joe’s apostrophes from running rogue around The Write Practice.