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Writing Tip: February 27, 2003

Ending Sentences with Prepositions

One of our subscribers wrote to ask about ending sentences with prepositions. She offered several examples of what she considered incorrect usage:

1. Where is my wallet at?

2. What do you need to go to the store for?

3. Which department is he in?

All three of these sentences could be revised to avoid ending them with prepositions. Technically, however, only the first sentence is ungrammatical because the preposition in that sentence has no object.

Take a look at those same three sentences phrased another way:

1. My wallet is where?

2. You do need to go to the store for what?

3. He is in which department?

Notice that in the first sentence, we had to drop the "at" in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct. We could not have written "My wallet is at where" because "where" is an adverb; it cannot be the object of the preposition "at" because objects must be nouns or pronouns. But in the other two sentences, the prepositions "for" and "in" fit grammatically in their sentences because they do have objects. That is, they launch the prepositional phrases "for what" and "in which department."

Although sentences 2 and 3 are not ungrammatical, we could, of course, rewrite them to avoid ending them with prepositions:

2. For what do you need to go to the store?
3. In which department is he?

Such wording sounds very formal, however, and would sound pretentious in casual conversation and in most professional writing. Nonetheless, in professional contexts, it is probably best to avoid ending sentences with prepositions simply because many people *think* that doing so is always incorrect. Many readers do not recognize the difference between ending a sentence with a preposition whose object appears earlier in the sentence and ending a sentence with a preposition that has no object.

On the subject of ending sentences with prepositions, people often recount a story involving Winston Churchill. When an editor dared to change a sentence of Churchill's that appeared to end inappropriately with a preposition, Churchill responded by writing to the editor, "This is the kind of impertinence up with which I shall not put." His purpose, of course, was to illustrate the awkwardness that can result from rigid adherence to the notion that prepositions at the end of sentences are always incorrect.

The same words that frequently function as prepositions can also function as adverbs, and often they exist as part of what we call a phrasal verb. Verbs that contain adverbs are easy to spot because the adverb significantly affects the meaning of the verb. In Churchill's sentence, for example, the verb "to put up with" means "to tolerate" and is a very different verb from "to put," which means "to set" or "to place."

Here are a few other examples. Notice how the verbs change in meaning when the adverb is part of the phrasal verb:

"to get" vs. "to get up" and "get by"
"to look" vs. "to look up," "to look out," and "to look over"
"to break" vs. "to break down" and "to break in"
"to check" vs. "to check out" and "to check up on"
"to run" vs. "to run over" and "to run down"
"to shake" vs. "to shake up" and "to shake down"
"to blow" vs. "to blow up," "to blow over," "to blow out," "to blow off," and "to blow away"

Sentences that end with these phrasal verbs appear to end with prepositions, but in fact they do not.

--As long as we continue to have faith, we will get by.
--This morning I have four proposals to look over.
--Alice is constantly afraid that her car will break down.
--Ten minutes after the timer is set, the device will blow up.

TEST YOURSELF

Do any of the following sentences improperly end in a preposition?

1. Where is he at?
2. When you buy your new dictionary, what words are you going to look up?
3. Which employees are you attending the conference with?
4. Who did you give the flowers to?

ANSWERS

1. Drop the "at" because it is not an adverb and, as a preposition, it has no object. Correction: "Where is he?"

2. Correct. The preposition "up" is a part of the phrasal verb "to look up."

3. Correct. Although this wording is informal, the preposition "with" does have an object: "employees." The more formal wordingóand the wording more appropriate in writingówould be "With which employees are you attending the conference?"

4. This sentence is highly informal not only because it separates the preposition to from its object but also because it incorrectly uses "who" when it should use "whom." Only diehard grammarians would take issue with this usage in casual conversation. In professional documents, however, we should write "To whom did you give the flowers?" (For more information, read the tip on "who" and "whom" in the tip archive on this Web site or in our new book of tips (click on "order books").

Copyright 2003 Get It Write

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