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Ending a Sentence or Clause with a Preposition

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Yet Another Myth

Here we have another myth, which I briefly mentioned in the section on prepositions:

Never end a sentence or clause with a preposition.

Actually, a sound rule would urge you to avoid ending sentences or clauses with prepositions in formal settings, as long as you don’t end up writing awkward sentences.

Following the rule, we would write:

These are the arguments on which the student relied.

But I know some excellent writers who would ignore the old rule and write:

These are the arguments the student relied on.

Sometimes you simply must end the sentence with a preposition:

What are you talking about?

Surely, not even a pedant would inquire:

About what are you talking?

Great writers have been ending sentences and clauses with prepositions for centuries. According to New Fowler:

Anyone who is in doubt about the frequency of occurrences over the centuries of prepositions placed at the end of clauses or sentences may wish to browse in the Oxford English Dictionary for about, by, for, from, etc. . . . New Fowler, p. 617.

New Fowler suggests that the formality of the setting should govern. In highly formal pieces, like a master’s thesis, you should try to avoid ending clauses with prepositions. But even in these formal settings, sentences sometimes demand a preposition at the end. In 1981, the London Review of Books wrote:

The conflict would be hard to live with.

Surely if this work includes such structures, your master’s thesis may, too. Thus, you need not write:

The conflict would be hard with which to live.

Sir Winston Churchill had his own opinion on the matter. In the words of his biographer:

A junior civil servant had tortuously reworded a sentence to avoid ending with a preposition. The prime minister scrawled across the page:

“This is nonsense up with which I will not put.” William Manchester, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, vol. 1, p. 31 (1983).

But don’t overdo it. New Fowler, at p. 618, quotes a correspondent in 1923 showing how absurd sentences can become when they end with prepositions:

Child: I want to be read to.
Nurse: What book do you want to be read to out of?
Child: Robinson Crusoe.
Nurse returns with Swiss Family Robinson.
Child: What did you bring me that book to be read to out of for?

 

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