Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ending Sentences with Prepositions: Nothing to Get Upset About


Madelyn, an 9th grader from Pennsylvania, writes:
I've heard that you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition. But I can't always figure out a way to avoid it without making the sentence sound really bad.

Such a smart girl! Of course you can't avoid it, and you shouldn't try. Show me someone who ruthlessly avoids ending sentences with prepositions, and I'll show you a really terrible writer.

This long-standing myth is a holdover from the days when the grammar police tried to make English into a Latin wannabe. As a result, generations of schoolkids were taught to never end a sentence with a preposition. But nowadays all good writers, editors, teachers and style guides accept that this non-rule should not be enforced. Truth is, it can't be enforced.

In natural, spoken English, we constantly end sentences with prepositions. She was acting goofy when Justin was around. He didn't know what he was up against. I need a friend I can count on. Now, I suppose I could say, I need a friend on whom I can count. But then I'd probably attract the sort of insufferable, uptight friends who sit around trying not to end their sentences with prepositions.

Just think about how we ask questions. What are you waiting for? Which company does she work for? What were we talking about? What has she gotten herself into? Have you seen him around? Mind you, there are alternatives that would also work, such as For what are you waiting? Into what has she gotten herself?, but they can sound terribly pretentious and stiff. Good speech and good writing sounds natural. Trust your ear.


Quick rules:
  • There's no rule against ending a sentence with a preposition.
  • On the other hand, a sentence often reads better when the preposition comes before the subject, so try it out both ways. Mixing things up will make your writing much more interesting and readable.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition that serves no purpose. This is where we're at. People, stop saying this! The preposition 'at' adds nothing here, so lose it. This is where we are. That's better.
  • Know your audience. If you're writing an essay for a teacher who's a known stickler for the old-school way of doing things, then you'll need to play the game so your grades don't tank.

**********
Brush up on grammar basics:

4 comments:

  1. I've never heard so much dribble in all my life.

    If you can't figure out a way to reword your sentence then you are at the same level of articulation as a ninth grader.

    Madelyn is excused, she is only young and still has much to learn, even if she is at the top of her class or if she has an excellent writing style, with time and experience she will learn how to avoid this bad practices.

    You are not helping by encouraging bad grammatical practices

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you actually mean "drivel", not "dribble. Dribble doesn't generally make a sound.

      As for your argument, I'm afraid you are mistaken there, as well. Update your style manuals.

      Delete
  2. Let's start at the beginning. This non-rule originally sprung from a false analogy between English and Latin, and a desire of medieval grammarians to make English conform to Latin rules of grammar. But it has been long-abandoned by grammar usage manuals (e.g. Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style), because it proved unworkable.

    One problem was that Latin is dead while English is incredibly dynamic and always evolving. Dictionaries are continually adding new words that were once considered slang. (I was horrified, for example, to learn that the word "chillax" was admitted to a major dictionary this year.) Grammar style books, the official grammar police, are also continually adapting to modern usage.

    You can cling to this practice if you like, but I'm in good company with Strunk and White (circa 1959!), the AP, Chicago Manual of Style, and every decent copy editor working today (though, sadly, their numbers are dwindling). Pick up any grammar manual published within the last 40 years, and you'll see what I mean.

    There is, understandably, resistance from people "of a certain vintage," who tend to get offended by the idea that the way they learned grammar could possibly be lacking. But teaching kids to follow outdated, inflexible non-rules won't make their speech and writing better; it leads to language that sounds overly formal, unnatural and, yes, old-fashioned.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Not to mention that it's ludicrous to think that the benefits of prescriptivism stretch beyond continuity of communication. This is the one serious advantage of prescriptivism, person-too-afraid-too-use-a-name-while-espousing-elitist-bullshit. To borrow from Bill Deresiewicz, I can understand Jane Austen much better than she could understand Shakespeare, and this is only thanks to stodgy old men who sat down and prescribed rules to grammar.

    Their negative side effect, people like you Anonymous, may not be worth it... no no, I jest, Jane Austen is a fabulous writer. Anyway, stop trying to command, and observe for once how language flows along, the same words eroding different watersheds for future generations to enjoy language in the same way differently.

    ReplyDelete