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A Word, Please: You can end a sentence with a preposition if you want to

Cover of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary.
Grammar columnist June Casagrande writes that ending a sentence with a preposition is not an error, as noted in numerous English-language dictionaries.
(Oxford University Press, Inc.)

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of “most common grammar mistakes” lists on the internet. And, over the years, I’ve learned they’re almost always wrong. That is, in every published list of the grammar mistakes you’re supposedly making, there’s usually one or two that aren’t mistakes at all. It’s the author who’s mistaken.

But that experience didn’t prepare me for a post I came across recently on yourdictionary.com titled “18 Most Common Grammar Mistakes.” Though this list contained more than one bit of misguided advice, No. 9 stopped me in my tracks.

“Nine. Another common grammar mistake is ending a sentence with a preposition,” the author wrote. “A preposition, by its nature, indicates that another word will follow it. In casual conversation, this type of error is no big deal, but you should avoid this mistake in your writing.

For example: Incorrect: ‘What reason did he come here for?’ Correct: For what reason did he come here?’”

This just isn’t true. Never has been. It’s a superstition — one that’s been debunked over and over by every credible authority under the sun. In fact, this fake rule has been exposed so many times in recent years that I figured it was fading into memory. But nope. It persists. So it’s a good idea to understand the underlying grammar concepts and why this supposed rule is wrong.

Prepositions aren’t easily defined. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary’s definition of preposition: “a function word that typically combines with a noun phrase to form a phrase which usually expresses a modification or predication.”

Not much to sink your teeth into there. But a usage note in Merriam’s explains it better. “A preposition is a word — and almost always a very small, very common word — that shows direction (to in ‘a letter to you’), location (at in ‘at the door’), or time (by in ‘by noon’), or that introduces an object (of in ‘a basket of apples’). Prepositions are typically followed by an object, which can be a noun (noon), a noun phrase (the door), or a pronoun (you).”

Some of the most common prepositions are: at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, with, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, during, except, inside, instead of, into, like, near, off, on top of, onto, out of, outside, over, past, since, though, toward, over, under, until and without.

As Merriam’s noted, these words usually take a noun or pronoun as their object, like “cheese” in “with cheese” or “the office” in “at the office.” And therein lies the germ of our grammar myth. If a preposition takes an object and is, as Merriam’s notes, “usually followed by” that object, it calls into question a sentence like “What did you do that for,” in which the preposition “for” is followed by nothing. “Who are you going with,” “That’s one person I’m impressed by” and “Hamburgers are the food I eat the most of” all end with a preposition followed by nothing, so people figure these must be grammar mistakes. Not true.

“There is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition like ‘to,’ ‘with,’ ‘for’ or ‘at,’” Merriam’s notes. English speakers have been doing so since the days of Old English.”

Here’s Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage: “The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which a preposition was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with.” (See what he did there?)

American Heritage Dictionary also traces the superstition to misapplied rules of Latin and sets the record straight. “English syntax does allow for final placement of the preposition, as in ‘We have much to be thankful for.’”

All credible language authorities agree: It’s not a grammar error to end a sentence with a preposition. It’s a shame more people don’t realize it.

The writer is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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