Dangling prepositions, also known as “preposition stranding,” are not, in fact, grammatically incorrect.
Let me say that again. Or let Mike Vuolo say it in Slate magazine’s inaugural, deliciously dorky Lexicon Valley podcast episode, “A Sin of Which None is Guilty:”
“It really is one of the biggest myths in the English language, this idea that we’re not supposed to end sentences with prepositions.”
What?! Where have I been all these years?
This is possibly the most deeply-ingrained grammatical rule I remember (besides split infinitives), and is the rule I chide myself about in my own writing and edit mentally when I read someone else’s work. It’s the rule that jars me both when it’s broken (because I get stuck on a sentence’s grammatical incorrectness) and when it is adhered to (because “for what this butterfly mind is made” sounds so unnatural). While I feel not a shred of remorse over a writing a sentence fragment to facilitate pacing or punch, or a run-on sentence to create rhythm, I agonize over leaving a preposition dangling. I feel guilty for stranding it.
It turns out that the question of dangling prepositions is a common topic of conversation in grammar circles (yes, I just said grammar circles), and often tops the list of frequently asked questions about the English language. Slate magazine felt so strongly about it that they launched their Lexicon Valley podcast with it, and Grammar Girl, endorsed by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 best websites for writers, addresses it not only in her Top Ten Grammar Myths, but in its very own Ending a Sentence with a Preposition post as well.
So what’s the deal? Why are we slapped with the metaphorical ruler on our metaphorical knuckles over and over again for this mythical rule? Apparently, according the Grumpy Grammarian John McWhorter, in a piece in The New Republic, “this fake grammar rule [has] a particular distinction: Its legendary smackdown is as well known as the rule itself.”
Whoa. A grammar smackdown.
The smackdown boils down to this: in the 1670s, about half a decade after Shakespeare, a poet/playwright, John Drydon, was trying to distinguish himself in the new age of England’s post-puritanical reopening of theater. He wanted to say, “Hey, we don’t need those old guys, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Look at me! I’m John Drydon. I’ve got something to say.” And then he criticized Ben Jonson, writing, “The preposition in the end of the sentence, [is] a common fault with him.” As Mike and Bob at Lexicon Valley point out, “This is the first really clear statement of anyone having specific trouble with prepositions at the end of a sentence.”
After Drydon, the “rule” was popularized by men of the cloth who also fancied themselves language scholars. First was Robert Lowth, a Bishop in London’s Church of England in his A Short Introduction to English Grammar. He suggested there that grabbing onto those prepositions and snuggling them safely inside the sentence was “more graceful” than dangling them at the end. And then in the 1860s, Henry Alford, in his The Queen’s English, wrote, “There is a peculiar use of prepositions which is allowable in moderation but must not be too often resorted to. It is the placing them at the end of a sentence, as I have just done in the words ‘resorted to.'”
And the tradition carried on from there. Now, before we go crazy and start hanging prepositions off every available sentence-cliff, it is recommended by Henry Alford and others that, as with all super fun things, the dangling preposition be used in moderation. The “rule” is widely believed as grammatical dogma, and as Grammer Girl advises:
“When you’re writing a cover letter to a potential employer, don’t end a sentence with a preposition. The person reading the letter could see it as an error.”
You and I can smile smugly as we tuck our prepositions in for those unlearned employers. Because as the Grumpy Grammarian quotes Kingsley Amis, the dangling preposition rule is “one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant slobs.”
Thanks to the gloriously geeky Lexicon Valley, I am not an ignorant slob anymore. And now, neither are you.
P.S. If your favorite grammar joke looks like this,
Poor ignorant slob: “Where’s it at?”
Grammar police: “Behind the ‘at.'”
have no fear. According to Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Grammar Myths “Where are you at?” is still technically wrong. She says, “You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition when the sentence would mean the same thing if you left off the preposition. That means “Where are you at?” is wrong because “Where are you?” means the same thing.” In other words, you can still use your nerdalicious comeback, “Behind the ‘at’.” Unless that comeback is grammatically wrong. Which is quite possibly the case. If anyone has insight on this, please comment with your reasoning below.
We all learned you’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. But from where did this alleged rule come? And why does it encumber us with such labored sentences as the one preceding this? In the first episode of Slate’s new language program Lexicon Valley, producer Mike Vuolo and On the Media co-host Bob Garfield explore the history of the terminal preposition rule, and whether there are good reasons to follow it.
Addendum to original post (added 5/31/13):
If it is still hard for you to believe that this “DO NOT END A SENTENCE PREPOSITION” rule is wrong – and believe me, I understand the difficulty in getting over this rule – if you really can’t bear to leave those ‘at’s and ‘in’s hanging without concrete, fact-checked, externally edited, published-in-print proof that it is okay to strand your prepositions, I give you the usage note for the “preposition” entry in The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Houghton Mifflin Company:
prep · o · si · tion…
Usage Note: The doctrine that a preposition may not be used to end a sentence has become one of the most venerated maxims of schoolroom grammatical lore. However, English syntax allows and sometimes requires final placement of the preposition. Such placement is the only possible one in a sentence such as That depends on what you believe in. · Even sticklers for the traditional rule can have no grounds for criticizing sentences such as Where will she end up? or It’s the most curious book I’ve ever run across. In these examples, up and across are used as adverbs, not prepositions.