The Debunker: Are Prepositions Unacceptable To End Sentences With?

by Ken Jennings

Let’s face it—what do any of us really know about language? If you had a gun to your head, could you tell me the difference between “farther” or “further,” or spell “minuscule” correctly? To make matters worse, a lot of the things you think you know about words are probably wrong. In honor of National Grammar Day (March 4!) we’ll be debunking dialectical deceit all month on Woot. Was your ninth-grade English teacher’s classroom a house of lies? Find out from 74-time Jeopardy! champion (and self-proclaimed grammar Nazi) Ken Jennings.

Language Myth #1: Never End a Sentence with a Preposition!

During World War II, a memo was circulated in a British government department pointing out that some in the office were incorrectly ending sentences with prepositions—you know, short words used to express spatial relationships or semantic roles, like in, for, and of. An anonymous functionary (misidentified as Winston Churchill in many versions of the story) scribbled a snarky postscript calling the rule “offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put!”

This is one grammar rule that even non-grammarians assume they can scold people with. (Or “with which even non-grammarians assume they can scold people,” as they would no doubt prefer.) It’s been drummed into our heads by decades of grumpy schoolteachers. In one 1975 usage study, even 20 percent of professional writers agreed that the sentence-ending preposition was a huge no-no. But the whole thing is bogus. Not for a century has any actual grammarian supported the “rule.” As long ago as 1926, usage guru H. W. Fowler was calling it a “cherished superstition.”

The idea seems to have been dreamed up out of thin air in 1672 by English poet John Dryden, probably in imitation of the grammatical construction of Latin. Dryden complained, seemingly without an ounce of self-awareness, that the so-called “great” Elizabethan playwrights broke this super-important “rule” all the time. (What hacks! You mean, “We are such stuff on which dreams are made,” right, Shakespeare?) Dryden didn’t seem to realize that there are many constructions where postponing the preposition is preferable or even necessary. So the next time you ask an English professor what page he’s on, and he asks you to re-cast the sentence, be sure to reply, “Okay. What page are you on, douchebag?”

Quick Quiz: On the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest quotes in movie history, #14 is the Shakespeare-inspired “The stuff that dreams are made of.” What classic 1941 film noir ends with this quote (and preposition)?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr member Mooganic. Used under a Creative Commons License.