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With or Without a Complement: Ending Sentences with Prepositions

What is up with the English grammar rule “do not end sentences with prepositions”? I clearly remember my grade school grammar teachers drilling this rule into my head. Marooned prepositions, stranded prepositions, whatever term you use, prepositions without complements were expressly forbidden. However, as all native English speakers know, prepositions are perfectly acceptable words to end sentences with. What are you looking at? Where did you go to? When did you get up? All three of these sentences end with prepositions. All three are grammatically correct in English. So, why all the hatred for these lone prepositions?

Latin Grammar Models

Well, when the first English grammars were recorded in writing, the early English grammarians tried to force the English language into a Latin grammar model. As a Germanic language, however, English refuses to fit neatly into the grammar rules for Latin and its related languages. But, those first English grammarians still tried. And, since Latin could not have sentences that ended with prepositions, neither could English. Students have since been tortured for years with the irrelevant grammar rule “do not end sentences with prepositions.”

Prepositions and Wh-Fronting

With such a false rule debunked, we must now wonder if all prepositions equally lack prepositional complements. The answer is no. First, take the preposition in the sentence What are you looking at? In English, interrogatives, or questions, can be formed through wh-fronting. Wh-fronting is when a wh-word, or question word, is moved to the beginning of a clause. For example, the corresponding declarative sentence to What are you looking at? is You are looking at what. To form the question, the subject you switches positions with the first auxiliary verb are to form Are you looking at what? Finally, the wh-word what is fronted, which results in both our question What are you looking at? and the marooning of the preposition at.

Dialectical Uses of Prepositions

The second sentence Where did you go to? provides an example of the use of prepositions in some dialects of English including the American English spoken in the Midwest. Although the question could also be asked as Where did you go?, many Midwesterners including myself often add a so-called superfluous preposition to the end of the sentence as in Where did you go to? Speakers most often add these extra prepositions to spatial sentences that indication location or direction. Such prepositions can also be heard added to statements as in This party is where the action is at.

Prepositions and Phrasal Verbs

Winston Churchill once said, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” This statement aptly illustrates that some prepositions in English must be placed at the end of sentences, or rather directly after the verb, as in put up with. Such verbs that are formed by a verb followed by one or more prepositions are called phrasal verbs. Other example of English phrasal verbs include wake up, run into, and throw up. The prepositions in such verbs function as particles and are required for the meaning of the verbs. And, as Churchill demonstrates, the movement of such prepositions to before the verb results in an awkward, if not grammatically incorrect, sentence construction. The third example of When did you get up? can only occur with the preposition at the end of the sentence, never *When did up you get?

Clearly, the prescriptive grammar rule “do not end sentences with prepositions” is a lie at worst and inaccurate at best. Although marooning prepositions is not possible in Latin, English grammar cannot and will not be forced into a Latin grammar model. Prepositions are words to end sentences with.

References

DeCarrico, Jeanette S. 2000. The structure of English: Studies in form and function for language teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
Jacobs, Roderick A. 1995. English syntax: A grammar for English language professionals. New York: Oxford University Press.
Justice, Laura M. & Helen K.Ezell. 2002. The syntax handbook: Everything you learned about syntax…but forgot. Eau Claire, WI: Thinking Publications.
O’Dwyer, Bernard T. 2000. Modern English structures: Form, function, and position. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

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