Dr Winford James

A Preposition at the End of the Sentence?
You Gotta Be Joking! - Part 1

By Dr. Winford James
April 24, 2005

I often find myself in the company of educated people, and every now and then, one of them will make a comment about English usage which I will disagree with (or with which I will disagree!). The other day, a colleague of mine could not believe his ears when I contradicted his statement that Standard English sentences do not - and must not - end with prepositions. When I told him I could demonstrate that he was wrong, he looked at me with diffidence and dared me to do so there and then. We were in a business meeting, so I declined on the ground that the demonstration would unreasonably slow the progress of the meeting. His diffidence increased as he thought I was bluffing. This column is specially for him.

People who say that a sentence should not end with a preposition have in mind sentences like the following (where the preposition is in capital letters):

1a. Virgil burst out laughing as soon as he realised what I was driving AT.
2a. After all that generosity, what more could I ask FOR?
3a. That is the passage which the text comes IN.

As far as they are concerned, 'at', 'for', and 'in' are prepositions which should come before nouns, pronouns, and noun phrases and have no business coming at the end of sentences. At the end of sentences, they might argue, the prepositions sound weak, and, further, that position in the sentence violates the perfect grammar of Latin from which English is derived and in which prepositions never come at the end of the sentence but before nouns in the accusative and ablative cases.

So that they would rewrite sentences 1a-3a as follows:

1b. Virgil burst out laughing as soon as he realised AT what I was driving.
2b. After all that generosity, FOR what more could I ask?
3b. That is the passage IN which the text comes.

Now, I grant that you can rewrite the sentences as in 1b-3b, but don't they sound unnatural and stilted in comparison to those in 1a-3a? To my ears, they do. But sound is a weak basis for making the case of grammatical (un)acceptability. I might find that the sentence-ending preposition sounds good and right, and you might find that it sounds bad and wrong. Let's therefore look for a better basis.

Let's consider the following sentences, models of which we often hear all around us:

4a. Lucky got shouted AT and spat ON.
5a. You speak to Panday since I find him so difficult to speak TO.
6a. The topic wasn't worth speaking ON.

They end with those misplaced prepositions. How would you rewrite them? Would you come up with the following?:
4b. AT Lucky got shouted and ON Lucky got spat?
5b. You speak to Panday since I find TO him so difficult to speak.
6b. ON the topic wasn't worth speaking.

In these rewrites, the preposition comes before a name noun ('Lucky'), a pronoun ('him'), and a noun phrase ('the topic'), but the sentences not only sound wrong, but are also unacceptable - even to those who insist that prepositions must not come sentence-finally. If the prepositions are in the wrong place, where then should they be?

Perhaps our sentences in 4a-6a are unacceptable in themselves and should be replaced by others such as those below:

4c. People shouted AT and spat ON Lucky.
5c. You speak to Panday since I find it so difficult to speak TO him.
6c. I didn't think it worthwhile speaking ON the topic.

Ah, now we have our prepositions coming before nouns, pronouns, and noun phrases, and the sentences are good. But not so fast! These are different sentences, aren't they? Though they capture the essential meaning of those in 4a-6a, they are not quite in the same style, are they? And we don't want an unjustified prejudice against sentence-final prepositions to tyrannically rule out a style that is regular in the speech of speakers of English, including the naysayers, do we? What?! Don't you say things like: 'The bandit got cuffed and kicked and spat on' and 'He is not worth fighting over'?

Trouble is, in normal speech production, people do not consciously monitor their speech - can't afford to, in fact - and so are typically unaware of the structures they produce. But I suppose that their bias against sentence-ending prepositions might be so strong that they would say that the fact they produce them doesn't mean that it is right to do so!

The matter of sentence-ending prepositions is far more complex than our bogus little prescription against them suggests, but consider one more example which disproves the prohibition. In the sentence 'Get in the car!', the preposition 'in' comes before the noun phrase 'the car', so our prescriptivists could say 'Right on!' But suppose we wanted to use a shortcut and said instead, 'Get in!', what would they say? That it is wrong? Because the sentence ends with a preposition now?

You gotta be joking!

A Preposition at the End of the Sentence? You Gotta Be Joking! - Part 2

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