Some so-called “rules” of grammar don’t hold up under careful scrutiny. Such is the case with the oft-repeated statement “never end a sentence with a preposition.”
In some cases ending a sentence with a preposition is inappropriate because the preposition has no object:
- Where is my wallet at?
- Where is she at?
We can rewrite both sentences without the unnecessary prepositions at the end:
- Where is my wallet?
- Where is she?
Such constructions are ungrammatical because the preposition “at” has no object.
Time Out: What Is a Prepositional Phrase?
Prepositional phrases are common and helpful elements in a sentence that function as adjectives or adverbs (and very rarely as nominals/nouns). Every prepositional phrase starts with a preposition and includes an object of that preposition.
- In the prepositional phrase “to the moon,” the preposition is “to” and the object is “moon.”
- In the phrase “at the park,” the preposition is “at” and the object is “park.”
Bonus knowledge: Sometimes the object of a preposition is an entire clause, as in the sentence “We will give the money (to [whoever needs it most]).” The prepositional phrase is in parentheses; the preposition is “to,” and the object is the entire clause “whoever needs it most.” (If you are thinking that “whoever” should be “whomever,” jump over to the article about “who” and “whom” elsewhere on our site.)
The Plot Thickens
Other times, however, we end a sentence with a preposition that actually does have an object elsewhere in the sentence:
- What do you need to go to the store for?
- Which department is he in?
Sentences sound more polished and professional when they don’t end in prepositions:
- For what do you need to go to the store?
- In which department is he?
Notice that we didn’t drop the prepositions but merely moved them next to their objects. “For“ and “in“ are grammatical because they have objects; they launch the prepositional phrases “for what” and “in which department.”
Such wording sounds formal (and maybe even pretentious) in casual conversation and even in some professional writing contexts. But it is probably best to avoid ending sentences with prepositions in high-stakes contexts simply because many readers have a bias against that construction.
Here Is the Part Most People Don’t Know
On the subject of ending sentences with prepositions, people often refer to an incident attributed (falsely, scholars believe) to Winston Churchill. As the story goes, an editor once asked Churchill to rewrite a sentence because it ended with a preposition.
An expert in syntax, Churchill is alleged to have responded, “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.”
Although this awkward sentence does underscore the problem with rigid adherence to any grammar rule, “up” and “with” do not function here as prepositions.
Instead, they are the final word(s) of the phrasal verb “to put up with.” Verbs that contain adverbs, called “particles,” are easy to spot because the adverb significantly changes the meaning of the verb.
In Churchill’s sentence, for example, the verb “to put up with” means “to tolerate,” a very different verb than “to put,” which means “to set” or “to place.”
Thus, the sentence “Rudeness is a behavior I won’t put up with” does not, in fact, end with a preposition at all; instead, the words “up with” are part of the phrasal verb “to put up with.”
Here are a few other examples of phrasal verbs. Notice how the meaning of the verbs change when the adverb (particle) 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. One test of whether we are dealing with a phrasal verb is whether we can identify a one-word verb that holds the same meaning:
- As long as we continue to have faith, we will get by. (“to get by” = “to survive”)
- This morning I have four proposals to look over. (“to look over” = “to examine”)
- Alice is constantly afraid that her car will break down. (“to break down” = “to malfunction”)
- Ten minutes after the timer is set, the device will blow up. (“to blow up” = “to explode”)
Do any of the following sentences ungrammatically end in a preposition?
- Where is he at?
- When you buy your new dictionary, what words are you going to look up?
- Which employees are you attending the conference with?
- Who did you give the flowers to?
- Drop the “at” because it is not an adverb and, as a preposition, it has no object. Correction: “Where is he?”
- Correct. The preposition “up” is a part of the phrasal verb “to look up.”
- Correct. Although this wording is informal, the preposition “with” does have an object: “employees.” The more formal wording—and the wording perhaps more appropriate in professional writing—would be “With which employees are you attending the conference?”
- 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 (pedantic?) 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 our post on “who” and “whom.”)
Copyright 2003 Get It Write. Revised 2019.