Myth or Fact: Is it wrong to use prepositions at the end of a sentence? Essay

Myth or Fact: Is it wrong to use prepositions at the end of a sentence?

A Research Paper

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            This research paper aims to discuss a particular example of what are commonly believed to be ‘grammar myths.’ Long before the scientific study of language and the development of linguistics as a discipline, schools and universities taught what is now known as ‘prescriptive grammar.’ Prescriptive grammar is not exactly grammar as we know it today – i.e. rules of spoken language – but rather could be viewed as a list of  “do’s and don’ts,” a prescription for proper communication, both oral and written, based on Latin.

Thesis

The present paper aims to debunk the grammar myth that “Prepositions should not occur at the end of a sentence.”

A preposition describes a relationship between other words in a sentence. It literally means “position before,” and is also known as a ‘positioning word.’ An English clergyman, Robert Lowth, wrote the first grammar book saying a preposition (or positioning word, e.g. at, by, for, into, off, on, out, over, to, under, up, with) should not be placed at the end of a sentence, and since the 18th century, grammarians have upheld this idea. However, a review of English literature would reveal that works from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton is filled with sentences ending with prepositions.

In the contemporary era, such a rule has been questioned by modern grammarians.
This was probably due to a desire to correct their earlier contemporaries’ misguided attempt to model “good English grammar” on Latin. What actually happens is that when people attempt to rewrite a sentence and try to avoid placing a preposition in the final position in the sentence, it becomes stilted. This is cleverly illustrated in a famous anecdote about Sir Winston Churchill: Confronted by an editor who changed his writing to avoid putting a preposition in the sentence’s final position, Churchill reportedly answered “This is the sort of English up with which I cannot put!”

Problematic Prepositions: Some Examples

The following examples illustrate how ambiguous and problematic the use of prepositions could prove to be.

Incorrect Use of prepositions such as:

I have no idea where the fair is at.
The correct form would have been: I have no idea where the fair is.

What did you go to the shopping mall for?
The correct form would have been:   Why did you go to the shopping mall?

However, there are some cases wherein the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence proves to be the more ‘grammatically correct’ option:

There was great concern about what the weapon would be used for.
This sounds more elegant than “There was great concern about for what would the weapon be used.”

I wish I knew which magazine Michael’s picture appeared in.
The sentence above appears more grammatically correct than “I wish I knew in which magazine Michael’s picture appeared.”

According to the Experts…

Even the experts do not seem to agree on this. For Eric Partridge (1973), “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 an arbitrary rule, but on its own merits, according to the impression it makes on the feeling of educated English readers” (Partridge 254).

As some cases prove, not using a preposition at the end of a sentence can lead to even worse grammatical errors. As the New York Public Library Writers Guide to Style and Usage (1994) emphasizes, ending a sentence with a preposition is acceptable. The book further recommends the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence as parts of idiomatic phrases. Yet The Longmans Guide of Usage (1988) instructs writers to avoid using a preposition at the end of a sentence in formal writing in the event that one is presented with an alternative. However, one may resort to using prepositions in less formal usage, in much the same way that the New Fowlers Modern English Usage Dictionary (1996) confirms that there are several circumstances in which a preposition needs to be placed at the end of a sentence, though this might not be the case in formal writing.

Recognized “grammarian’s grammarian,” H.W. Fowler, in “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926)” is quite forceful about the absurdity of the “rule” that one must not end a sentence with a preposition:

     It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late. . . . The fact is that. . . . even now immense pains are sometimes expended in changing spontaneous into artificial English. . . . 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 avoiding the forbidden order, unskillful handlers of words often fall into real blunders. . . . (Fowler 473-474).

In the same book, Fowler further expounds that “the ‘preposition’ is in fact [often] the adverbial particle of a phrasal verb, [and] no choice is open to us; it cannot be wrested from its partner” (475). Edward D. Johnson (1982), another modern-day expert airs his side in “The Handbook of Good English”: “Note that it is permissible to end a sentence with a preposition, despite a durable superstition that it is an error” (283). As Fowler explains in his version of the simple truth, the “preposition” in a phrasal verb is not really a preposition at all, but rather an adverbial particle, and in their attempts to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, it is these “unskillful handlers of words” who end up committing serious grammatical blunders.

The Researcher’s Perspective

The rule of not ending a sentence with a preposition is a very familiar one in traditional grammar.  Prepositions, which are used to connect nouns with other words or phrases, often demonstrate a logical relationship in a sentence. Prepositions in English sentences do not often function exactly as prepositions but instead are a part of the verb (technically speaking, as an ‘adverbial particle’), such as these: to put, to put up, to put up with. To summarize, using prepositions that are unnecessary or cause sentences to be ‘inelegant’ or plain clumsy and confusing at the end of a sentence should be avoided. On the other hand, it should be placed at the end of a sentence if not doing so results in a more awkward one. This is particularly true in the informal use of the English language, though one should be more careful in using prepositions in formal English.

Works Cited and Consulted

Burchfield, R. W., and H. W. Fowler, eds. The New Fowlers Modern English Usage. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996: 617-619.

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Houghton and Mifflin (Eds.) American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.

Huddleston, Rodney D. and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar to the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Long, M. An introduction to second language acquisition and research. London: Longman, 1991.

Larsen-Freeman, D. “On the teaching and learning of grammar: Challenging the myths.” In F. Eckman et al. (Eds.), “Second language acquisition theory and pedagogy.” Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (Series Director, 1993; 1997). Grammar dimensions: Form, meaning, and use. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1997.

Partridge, Eric. The Usage and Abusage Guide, W. W. Norton & Company, 1973: 253-254.

Pienemann, M. “Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition 6, 1984: 186-214.

The Longman’s Guide to English Usage (1988) 556-557

The New York Public Library Writers Guide To Style And Usage (1994) 191-192.

VanPatten, B., & Cadierno, T. “Explicit instruction and input processing.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15, 1993.  225-44.

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