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Little Burnt, Corkscrew Hairs

When You May End a Sentence with a Preposition

You’ve heard the story. About the freshman from Boise? Lost on the Harvard campus? No? Well, he’s standing in the quad, confused. Can’t find the library. So he sees this upperclassman, walks over, says, “Excuse me. Where’s the library at?” Upperclassman pats him on the head, says, “At Hahvahd we never end a sentence with a preposition.” Freshman from Boise tries again. “So, where’s the library at, asshole?” (I’m quoting.)


That’s one way to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Another would be to drop the at:


So, where’s the library?


And still another would be to tuck a preposition back inside the sentence:


Which part of campus would I find the library in?

In which part of campus would I find the library?


The grammar rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition is not only the oldest, but also the most frequently cited by grammarians as an example of how they really are a care-free, fun-loving bunch. "Sure, it's okay to end a sentence with a preposition," they say. "Let's loosen up a little, let our hair down, have a little fun. It's an old Latin rule anyway, and never was meant to apply to English."


Forget grammar. In their quest to show us their fun side, what the yay-sayers overlook is that when we end a sentence with a preposition, the sentence feels unfinished. That's more important than worrying or not worrying about violating or not violating some existing or non-existent grammar rule. Here's why: Prepositions begin prepositional phrases, so we expect to see an article, a noun, maybe an adjective following. But when that preposition is the last word in the sentence, we feel like we've fallen off a cliff. Something's missing. I would always try to delete that preposition or move it into the sentence.


There are exceptions, but they are rare. The real problem arises when we encounter what grammarians call “prepositional verbs,” verbs that require a preposition to complete their meaning: move over, take in, fly up, work on, find out. To end a sentence with one of these is not so bad, because the preposition merely refines the verb. I wish I had done that recently.


I was talking to a friend about an old entertainer in Las Vegas. I couldn’t remember the entertainer’s name. The next day I saw the friend again, and I said:


“Wayne Newton is the name up with which I could not come.”


I wasn't doing my best imitation of Churchill; I actually said that before I could stop myself. No one should ever speak or write that sentence. Leave the preposition, or prepositions, alone:


“Wayne Newton is the name I could not come up with.”


Otherwise, you will embarrass yourself. An even better solution, especially when we’re writing and have more time to think, is to replace the “prepositional verb” with another verb that doesn’t carry all that prepositional baggage. Move over becomes shift, take in could be gather, going on might be happening. A little rearranging of the sentence is not a bad idea, either:


By far the best:


I love to grill, but I hate to get those little burnt, corkscrew hairs on my wrists.


Not so bad:


I love to grill, but I hate those little burnt, corkscrew wrist hairs I end up with.


Absolutely, the worst:


I love to grill, but I hate those little burnt, corkscrew wrist hairs up with which I end.


The freshman from Boise? His lawyer claims he was grievously harmed by the condescending nature of the upperclassman's pat on his head and suffered great mental anguish, requiring expensive pharmaceuticals. I read the deposition of the upperclassman, who denies having ever spoken to a freshman.

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

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