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Redneck:”Where are you from?”
Harvard Grad: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences in a preposition.”
Redneck:”Ok, where you from, jackass?”

Through school we learned that one must not end a sentence with a preposition. Back then it was the strictest rule of them all, and each time you went against it, you lost a mark. But is it really a grammar rule? Can you really not end your sentences with prepositions?

It all started with an English clergyman called Robert Lowth who wrote the first grammar book. He said that it is incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition simply because it’s that way in Latin grammar and the word preposition means “position before” so that means that a preposition can’t come last. But really, that is not true. Why, I will explain in a bit, but let me tell you this first: while editing the proof of one of his books, Winston Churchill spotted a sentence that had been clumsily rewritten by the editor to eliminate a preposition at the end. The elder statesman mocked the intention with a comment in the margin: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

Ok, so before I begin to really drift, let’s start with prepositions. A preposition is a part of speech that shows the relationship between a noun and a pronoun and other words in a sentence. The following relationships are conveyed by prepositions: comparisons (like, as…as), agency (by), direction (to, toward, through), possession (of), purpose (for), source (from, out of), place (at, by, on); and time (at, before, on).

There are some sentences where a preposition has to come at the end in order for the sentence to make sense. For example, when you say something like “Who is this pink sweater for?” you have to use the “for” in the end to complete the sentence. Simply saying “Who is this pink sweater” won’t make any sense.

You could of course say “For whom is this pink sweater?” but it would sound odd and pedantic to your audience, and therefore, my advice would be, don’t use it. It is really fine to use a preposition at the end of a sentence so long as it is not extraneous. Compare these sentences one more time and tell me which one you’re most likely going to use?

Who is this pink sweater for?
For whom is this pink sweater?

But there is a flip side too. You can’t always end a sentence with a preposition. If leaving out a preposition at the end of your sentence does not change the meaning of a sentence you should leave it out. This sometimes means that you will have to reword your sentence to make it grammatically correct. For example, in a sentence like “She’s the kind of person I cannot cope with” you can afford to skip the preposition at the end and reword it to “I cannot cope with a person like her.” That way you still get to keep the preposition and yet, make the sentence sound more pure grammatically. Another option is to reword the sentence without a preposition: “She is the sort of person I cannot tolerate.” This is especially useful if you are reluctant to unlearn what you learned in school about not ending sentences in prepositions.

Please note that ending in preposition is perfectly fine if you are using a phrasal verb (These are verbs made up of multiple words, and one is always a preposition.). So the following are correct:

That’s the kind of wit she is known for.
I wish he would shut up.
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about (Oscar Wilde).
These numbers don’t add up.

And as Henry Fowler says (in Modern English Usage, 1921):

Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are “inelegant” are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards.

The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained; in respect of elegance or inelegance, every example must be judged not by any arbitrary rule, but on its own merits, according to the impression it makes on the feeling of educated English readers.

Again, it’s not a rule, and it’s not a rebellion against one. So yes, frame your sentences the way they sound right in your mind, and you have a winner.

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