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January 10th, 2007

Prepositions and similar words at the ends of phrases

by Barbara Wallraff

Ward Varns, of Farmington, Mich., writes: “Your recent column about ‘that’ and ‘which’ includes the following example, which you state is correct: ‘This newspaper, which you probably subscribe to, carries my column.’ Should not the rule of never ending a sentence with a preposition be applied to a thought within a sentence as well?”

Dear Ward: Thanks for noticing. Yes, the “rule” against ending a thought with a preposition would apply if it really were a rule. But authorities on language have been pooh-poohing it as a “superstition” for at least a century. That’s what the great British usage expert H.W. Fowler called it in his 1906 book “The King’s English.” It’s what Bryan A. Garner called it in his 2003 book “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” and he backed up his point with quotations from six other writers on English usage.

I agree that it’s a good idea, when you’ve written a sentence like mine, to ask yourself if there might be a better place to put the preposition. I could just as easily have written, “This newspaper, to which you probably subscribe ...” But it’s a stylistic choice. Writing seems more formal when it has all its prepositions neatly buttoned up and tucked in. Formality is all to the good in, for instance, business English. But the whole idea of a newspaper column about grammar risks being so intimidating that I think I’m better off writing as conversationally as I can without being incorrect.

Climetene McClain, of Detroit, writes: “The last sentence of your recent column about ‘that’ and ‘which’ really caught my attention: ‘Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the grammar checker to.’ Isn’t there something missing? Did you leave ‘to’ flapping in the breeze to see whether your readers were paying attention? How about adding ‘do so’ to the end of the sentence?”

Dear Climetene: Thank you, too, for noticing. For the record, the sentence that came before that one was: “The more of us there are who make the distinction, the easier it will be for everyone else to catch on.” My answer to you is pretty much the same as my answer to Ward Varns, above. I wrote it that way because it’s conversational, clear, and not wrong.

Well, all right. I’ll admit I was also hoping to bait someone into complaining that that sentence ended with a preposition. You’re wise not to have fallen into my trap. Just in case anyone else is wondering: Although “to” is usually a preposition, it’s serving a different function there. It’s standing in for the infinitive verb “to catch on,” much the way a pronoun stands in for a noun.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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