About What Is All This Commotion? The Rule Against Terminal Prepositions

I remember a very old, very played-out joke about today’s subject. The campuses change from region to region, but essentially, it goes like this.

A student visiting a college campus stops one of the students to ask for directions. “Excuse me,” says the visitor. “Where’s the library at?”

The host student replies, “Here at [insert name of university here], we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”

“I apologize,” says the visitor. “Where’s the library at, jackass?”

Today I bring good news and bad news to those who have struggled to adhere to the rule against terminal prepositions. I will break with tradition and give you the good news first.

The good news is that there is no rule that prohibits placement of the preposition at the end of a sentence. It’s possible that there never was such a rule. Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty calls it a grammar myth. Richard Nordquist on About.com refers to Bryan Garner’s assertion that the rule stems from Latin, where placement of the preposition affected the meaning of the sentence.

I will resist the temptation to examine the history of this supposed rule. All we need to know now is that English does not have a grammatical rule keeping you from putting the preposition at the end of the sentence.

That doesn’t mean you should do it. This is the bad news.

Like so many real rules, this fictional bar on terminal prepositions is here for our own good. You should avoid putting a preposition at the end of the sentence if doing so will make your sentence limp or the wording redundant. If you look at such sentences carefully, you’ll find that the terminal preposition almost always produces one of those two results. It only takes a little effort to put a stronger word at the end of the sentence; that’s why the old joke works so well, right?

At the same time, we must also consider our alternatives, like this sentence erroneously attributed to Churchill regarding “the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.” If adherence to the fictional rule results in a convoluted sentence, or worse, one that sounds stilted, then we are better off to ignore the rule in favor of the flow of language. This is what Churchill would have been getting at, if only he’d said what we’ve all been told he said. Churchill was no stranger to the convoluted sentence, but schoolchildren memorize those mouthfuls now. You and I will likely not bear the burden of immortality in quite this way.

So what am I getting at? Basically, you’re allowed to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, but there are better options to choose from. Pick one that makes it sound like you know what you’re talking about.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.



9 thoughts on “About What Is All This Commotion? The Rule Against Terminal Prepositions

  • Well, thank goodness! Seriously! Those mouthfuls were drilled into me growing up — thank you, 7th grade English and Mrs. Schiller — and I still have the tendency to want to convolute sentences and say things like, “From whom are you running, Gertrude?”

    • Isn’t it a relief to know you don’t actually have to do that? Sure, it doesn’t make up for all the lost time, but it still counts for something.

  • Indeed, a crystal clear and concise post on a matter that most probably aren’t even aware of. As a writer with an odd bent, as well as one who’s an adherent in the Yoda school of lexicon, ending a sentence sans a preposition is something I simply can’t do without.

    • All about the Yodaspeak I am. Thought before speech it demands. 🙂 It also reminds me a little of Latin, which is really nice.

      • That it is. By way of explanation, I landed on this page by chance then recognized your name immediately, Lexi. I remember you from quite a while back when we both attended a school for legal education (hint: I didn’t graduate). Leaving a comment was my way of acknowledging a really fine post, and also to say hello.

        • Oh, *now* I remember! I hate to admit how long ago that interesting experience really was. I’m glad you swung by, and I hope everything’s going well.

Comments are closed.