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Grammar Camp: Ending a sentence in a preposition

To grammar or not to grammar? That's the question.
Published by Hermine Chan

Did Winston Churchill really put his foot down and say “this is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put”? This is debatably a misattributed quote often associated with the former Prime Minister of the UK, though it has been used widely as an argument against the rule of never, ever ending a sentence with a preposition. 

Why is this a thing? Back in the 1760s, Classical Latin was still the lingua franca of Europe. Anglican Bishop and Oxford Professor of Poetry, Robert Lowth, made the argument that if ending a sentence in a preposition was not allowed in Latin, it should not be allowed in English either. A ‘cultured’ speaker of English would never stoop so low as to ask “Whose party are you going to?”, but would indubitably query “To whose party are you going?” with a perfectly arched eyebrow and a dignified grasp on proper grammar. 

This grammar rule lived on, though Classical Latin did not. We’re in the 21st Century now, in the era of Twitter and YouTube. Why are we still following this rule? 

Doing linguistic acrobatics in academic English

In Academic English, there is a certain expectation to sound “correct”. That often means to sound formal. If you are able to flex your linguistic acrobatics and avoid ending your sentences with a preposition, it demonstrates your fluency in English, which traditionally somehow makes you sound more academic. However, this has very little to do with your intelligence or competency. After all, your original ideas and solid arguments should matter more than your grammatical athleticism in an academic paper! 

 There is a changing trend in academia to put less focus on grammar and more on content and critical analyses. Some universities are starting to get a bit more relaxed about upholding grammar rules. Occasionally, there are still scholars who prefer you to ask them, “In which academic journal is your research published?”. But outside of academia, in the business world, asking “For which company do you work?” might probably beget a few questioning looks. 

When you have to end a sentence with a preposition 

It goes without saying that in informal everyday conversations, this rule has been dropped in favour of clear communications. You would tell your friends about how you spent much of 2020: “Canned soup is something that I cannot live without”, “Toilet paper is hard to come by”, and “I’ve listened to every single song in existence while in quarantine, and now I’ve got nothing to listen to”. You could of course rearrange these statements following the infamous Latin grammar rule—but why would you? 

In the business world, you may want to clarify your purpose and say that “The economic effect on the quarantine is not something that my organization is interested in”--an example of using a collocation, a verb that is always followed by a set preposition. You could rephrase this into “My organization is not interested in the economic effects on the quarantine”. That, however, changes the emphasis of your sentence and could impact your meaning. If ending your sentence in a preposition delivers your message better, so be it. 

Or when you are asking for directions from your boss, “Could you advise how I should prioritize the projects that I have taken on?”. You could, of course, restructure the sentences to “how I should prioritize the projects on which I have taken”. But because ‘take on’ is a phrasal verb where the preposition ‘on’ modifies the meaning of ‘take’, your boss might just have to read your sentence twice to get what you’re trying to say, and who has time for that? And if you use the passive voice in a report, “The exponential growth will be taken note of” is clearer than “The exponential growth is something of which will be taken note”. These are just examples of when clear communications should not be sacrificed in favour of the grammar rule. 

Just for fun 

Here's a paragraph where every single sentence ends in a preposition. I challenge you to change everything into something that follows the Latin grammar rule!  

I didn’t hear my alarm go off. I was late for my club meeting, so I rushed out. I took a tumble, and I didn’t know what I stepped on. 

There was a new member who showed up. He wanted to sign up. I wanted to make sure he felt taken care of. I asked, “Where are you from?”. He said, “This is the kind of English with which I will not put up.”. I yelled, “Leave it off!”. He told me to shut up! I just had to turn his application down. I was so upset I had to step away.  

My good friend saw me and tried to cheer me up. Being friendly is what she is known for. We found a restaurant and we went in. My friend’s food didn’t arrive for a long time, but she said, “What are you waiting for? Dig in!”. The food was cheap but not very good, but I guess you get what you pay for. When we were done, we only left a small tip before we walked out.

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