Putting Prepositions at the End of Sentences: A Stylistic Choice or an Error?

By Alexander Pralea, Editor

This question, whether one can place prepositions at the end of sentence, has ruffled grammarians for the past century, pitting modernists against traditionalists. It is highly loaded question, one that affects other hazy aspects of grammar. To discover the answer and the reason why many scholars argue for and against it, one must analyze the history of how English developed, especially through its contact with Latin.

Latin, in contrast to English, is a heavily inflected language with completely alien grammar. In other words, Latin modifies its nouns and adjectives to match gender, case (essentially purpose in a sentence), and number, and it conjugates its verbs to match tense, person, aspect, and mood. Because suffixes indicate the grammatical purpose of a word, subject, direct object, etc., Latin word order is also far freer. A simplified Germanic language, English shares none of these qualities. Descending from Proto-Germanic, an unattested but hypothesized root language of German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages, English once included four cases, nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. English, however, has ridden itself of these cases in its long history because of a wide range of reasons, the most important being contact with other languages.

Rome had colonized Great Britain extensively for a much longer period than it colonized a country like Romania, where a Romance language is still spoken, yet England quickly abandoned Latin in favor of the language of its invaders, Anglo-Saxon. Hailing from around Denmark, these “barbarians” spoke a language intelligible to the West Germanic dialects of Germany and the Netherlands. This language, as discussed earlier, featured four cases and prominent subjunctive forms. The fault for this astonishing simplification, which did not occur in German and Icelandic, lies in the Vikings, who would attack Britain’s shores for hundreds of years. These pillaging peoples too spoke a Germanic language, though theirs had diverged significantly by the time of their first contact with the Anglo-Saxons. For example, an Anglo-Saxon word that was feminine and followed certain declension patterns was masculine in the Viking dialect and followed completely different declension patterns. This, of course, reduced intelligibility, causing English to eschew many of the complex grammatical features that hindered communication. English, though, remained predominantly Germanic in its vocabulary until the Norman invasion of it in 1066.

In 1066, a Norman Duke named William battled against Harold II for control of the English throne. William the Conqueror’s victory in the Battle of Hastings, as immortalized in the Bayeux Tapestry, changed English forever. Originating from Normandy, William the Conqueror spoke Norman, a dialect of French with substantial Norse influence. Due to this, French and Latin assumed a prominent role in England, eclipsing Anglo-Saxon completely, which was not written again until the thirteenth century. A new elite arose, one that spoke Norman French, a language completely alien to the peasant speakers of Anglo-Saxon. French became the language of the courts, the state, and business, a fact that had a large influence on Middle English. These words, while not as common as everyday Germanic words, represented the concepts of high culture that were not found in the mundane life of a peasant. A striking example of the dichotomy between the roles of English and French persists today in the words for animals and their eaten forms. Anglo-Saxon peasants oversaw the raising of pigs, chickens, cows, and sheep, and thus gave their alive forms Germanic names. The French elite were those that consumed the pigs, chickens, cows, and sheep, resulting in the modern words “pork”, “poultry”, “beef”, and “mutton”.

This form of Middle English existed until the fifteenth century, at which point prominent sound shifts transformed Middle English into Modern English. The English that had been spoken at this time still regarded split infinitives as correct. Shakespeare, considered among the best English poets of all time, ended sentences with prepositions. This misconception originates in the writings of an eighteenth-century Englishman named Robert Lowth (O’Conner 210). A clergyman and Latin scholar, he published the first widespread grammar book to disseminate this idea that prepositions should not appear at the end of sentences. Today, his “rules” have fallen out of fashion for creating awkward, abstruse sentences. A sentence, almost certainly falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, expresses this point: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

English has always been an evolving language. As it has come in contact with other languages, it has adopted some of their features and has even sloughed off some of its more antiquated features. What was true of English a hundred years ago is not necessarily true today. This statement, however, does not justify flagrant errors, such as confusing “your” and “you’re”. Moreover, it is not incorrect to follow these rules apropos of prepositions at the end of sentence. Placing prepositions next to their objects is advisable in formal contexts and can even clean up sentences but is by no means necessary. In informal contexts and questions, placing prepositions at the end of sentences is advisable to facilitate understanding. Nonetheless, problems emerge when one attempts to modify English grammar to suit his/her (not their) needs, especially when it results in a lack of clarity and conciseness.




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