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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Is a Preposition All Right to End a Sentence With?

Remember the old rule: “A good writer never ends a sentence with a preposition”? Well, it’s too bad it was ever taught, because it is wrong, wrong, wrong. If you think I don’t know what I'm talking about, then I dare you to say, “You don’t know about what you’re talking.”

“For years Miss Thistlebottom has been teaching her bright-eyed brats that no writer should end a sentence with a preposition,” says Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1965), one of the most sensible usage guides ever written and one that anyone who puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard should keep handy.

Sentences that end with prepositions, Bernstein argues, “are idiomatic and have been constructed that way from Shakespeare’s ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’ to today’s ‘Music to read by.’ They are a natural manner of expression. Examine a handful: ‘It’s nothing to sneeze at’; ‘Something to guard against’; ‘You don’t know what I’ve been through’; ‘He is a man who can be counted on’; ‘I’m not sure what the cake was made of.’ Surely there is nothing wrong with these idiomatic constructions.” Those who try to “correct” such idiomatic constructions, says Bernstein, “won’t have a leg on which to stand.”

As far back as 1926, in Modern English Usage, the legendary English grammarian H. W. Fowler called the rule proscribing terminal prepositions “a cherished superstition” and charged that “those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are ‘inelegant’ are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards.

“The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained,” says Fowler. “Every example must be judged not by any arbitrary rule, but on its own merits, according to the impression it makes on the feeling of educated English readers.”

Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Burke, Defoe, De Quincey, John Stuart Mill, Samuel Pepys, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Rudyard Kipling (just to name a few) all wrote intelligible, graceful sentences that ended with a preposition. To say those fellows were wrong is like saying that everyone in the Baseball Hall of Fame didn’t know a thing about how to play the game.

So twist your syntax into knots if you like, but please don’t tell the rest of us what to end our sentences with.

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Copyright (c) 2011 by Charles Harrington Elster.
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