A Word, Please: Words you an end sentences with

I’ve been saying it so long I’ve started to doubt my own words. There’s a myth out there, I tell people, a widespread superstition that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. Then I go on to address that myth.

But the truth is, I haven’t heard anyone say that in years. Most of the people I’m around these days are editors and writers and grammar buffs. The only time the subject comes up is when people are talking about myth itself.

So I’ve been starting to wonder whether the myth is, well, mythical — or at least on the brink of extinction.

Then, just last week, there was a grammar discussion at one of my freelance jobs among not just the editorial people, but also some non-editorial people.

“All I know about grammar,” one man chimed in, “is that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.”

The myth lives! So allow me to take another stab at killing it, starting with a basic primer.

Prepositions are words like “at,” “with,” “for,” “from,” “above,” “below” and “without.” Their job is to link nouns and pronouns with other elements in a sentence. Pete threw the ball at Joe. Mary went to talk with her teacher. I made a sweater for him.

The noun or pronoun the preposition is paired with is its object: “at Joe,” “with her teacher,” “for him” — in each of these prepositional phrases a noun or pronoun serves as the preposition’s partner.

That’s why it’s often weird to put a preposition right at the end, where it’s split from its object. Joe is the person Pete threw the ball at. It’s the teacher Mary went to talk with. He’s the one I made the sweater for.

These are all clunky, awkward alternatives to the more direct and simple sentences we saw above. So it’s clear why someone might recommend you avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do so. There’s no rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, and there never was one.

“The ‘rule’ prohibiting a terminal preposition was an ill-founded superstition,” says the Chicago Manual of Style. “A sentence that ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition.”

Take the sentence “Who are you going to the movies with?” To move that preposition out of the end spot, you’d have to write, “With whom are you going to the movies?” That’s not always a great alternative.

Here’s another source: “Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end,” says Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” “sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.”

People who know that there’s no rule against sentence-ending prepositions often cite Winston Churchill as saying that this is “the type of errant pedantry up with which I shall not put!”

But even these folks may be victims of a myth: a few years back, a linguistics expert named Benjamin J. Zimmer researched the origins of this famous quotation and concluded that it may not have been Churchill who penned it at all. More likely, Zimmer reported, it was one of Churchill’s fellow writers for “The Strand” magazine.

The lesson here is don’t believe everything you hear about grammar. There are a lot of myths out there, most of which start with the words “You can’t” or “It’s wrong to.” Unless they’re backed up by some good sources, don’t take them too seriously.

And whatever you do, don’t repeat them at the office.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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