Up with This I will not Put!

This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.

– Winston Churchill (probably) on an editor mangling a sentence in his memoirs that had ended in a preposition

Can you end a sentence with a preposition? This has long been a subject of debate in grammar cirlces, though currently most people suggest that it’s fine.

Before we look at whether ending a sentence with a preposition is acceptable or not, we should first ask: what is a preposition? They’re tricky little words such as to, at, in, on, under, with, above etc. Basically they’re like connective tissue, or mortar between bricks. Or little tugboats pulling heavy ocean liners around. They don’t seem to do much on their own, but we need them to join the main concepts of sentences together.

Think of the sentence I’m going to the beach. What are the most important elements of that sentence? Most people would say I, going, and the beach. They tell us who, what’s happening, and where. But to join going and the beach together, we need to, to make the sentence flow, and make it clear that the beach is our destination.

They might seem simple to a native speaker, but prepositions are very difficult to learn perfectly for non-native speakers. They don’t often have meanings on their own, or they’re generally associated with a concept (e.g. with and togetherness), but can perform different functions depending on their context. They also don’t always have direct equivalents in other languages, but even when they seem to, a phrase in English similar to one in another language might still use a different preposition.

The reason I think some people don’t approve of ending sentences with prepositions is this idea of connectivity. Because they tend to join words or phrases together to make a sentence coherent, you’ll usually find prepositions between said words and/or phrases. So finding one at the end of a sentence is something some people just can’t deal with.

But for me there are two main reasons it’s ok.

First, of all it’s simply easier and more natural-sounding to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, in many cases, as opposed to the contortions one might have to go to in order to avoid doing so. For example:

Who do you live with? / With whom do you live?

What are you listening to? / To what are you listening?

Which album shall I put on? / On which album shall I put? Putting on which album, shall I be? Which album on shall I put? I give up.

I think almost anyone would agree that the first examples above sound much better than the second, which sound like bad Yoda impressions.Some might argue that grammatical/syntactic accuracy is more important than sounding natural, but a) not ending a sentence with a preposition is not accepted as a rule, and b) sounding natural is very important as it makes language easier to use and understand, and most of what we consider hard-and-fast grammar rules developed from what people accepted as sounding good.

Second of all, we don’t need to see a preposition between two things to understand that it connects them. When someone asks Who do you live with? we undertand instinctively that Who and you are connected by with, and that the answer will be along the lines of I live with ___. I also believe that a question beginning with a preposition (e.g. With whom do you live?) doesn’t make things any clearer than one with a preposition at the end. The preposition still isn’t between the things it joins whether it’s at the beginning or the end of the sentence.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about pedants insisting on not ending sentences with prepositions is that they ignore other well-established patterns in English to put their prepositions earlier in the sentence. They may not like asking What are you listening to? but what is a question word which almost always comes at the beginning of an information sentence. So putting to there not only sounds awkward or overly formal, but it also ignores a very common, basic convention, in favour of one that they believe is correct.

Basically what it all boils down to is: if it sounds good and everyone understands you, it’s probably fine.

That’s all for now, places to go to, I have, hmm?


3 thoughts on “Up with This I will not Put!

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