The ‘Rule’ Against Ending Sentences With Prepositions Has Always Been Silly

Late last month, Merriam-Webster shared the news on Instagram that it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition. Hats off to them, sincerely. But it is hard to convey how bizarre, to an almost comical degree, such a decree seems in terms of how language actually works. It is rather like announcing that it is now permissible for cats to meow.

There has long been a tacit idea that the pox on ending sentences with a preposition is based on some kind of principle — maybe linguistic or maybe aesthetic. Actually, it is based on essentially nothing. Like phlogiston, spontaneous generation and gnomes, the preposition rule started with an idea that felt right in another time but has no logical standing today.

The first person on record to declare opposition to ending sentences with a preposition was the poet John Dryden in the 17th century. But what really set the idea in stone was Bishop Robert Lowth’s highly influential “A Short Introduction to English Grammar” in 1762 and its direct descendant, Lindley Murray’s “English Grammar” in 1795. The two manuscripts had the same sort of influence in the 18th and 19th centuries as Strunk & White would have later.

But whence the notion that “the person I arrived with” is somehow inept compared with “the person with whom I arrived”? Anyone who never ended sentences with prepositions in casual speech would risk a certain sparseness of social life. Indeed, even grammarians like Lowth stipulated that keeping prepositions away from the end of sentences was most important in formal rather than casual language. But the question is why it is necessary there, since it usually sounds stuffy even in formal contexts.

The answer is: Latin. Scholars of Lowth’s period were in thrall to the idea that Latin and Ancient Greek were the quintessence of language. England was taking its place as a world power starting in the 17th century, and English was being spoken by ever more people and used in a widening range of literary genres. This spawned a crop of grammarians dedicated to sprucing the language up for its new prominence, and the assumption was that a real and important language should be as much like Latin as possible. And in Latin, as it happens, one did not end sentences with a preposition. “To whom are you speaking?” was how one put it in Latin; to phrase it as “Who are you speaking to?” would have sounded like Martian.

The problem, though, is that English is not Latin, just as it is not Arabic, Swahili or Thai. As natural as it seemed to certain overeducated souls 300 years ago that English would be best off dressing up as Latin, this was ultimately a local and even parochial fetish. It was held by people with no way of knowing the vast and diverse array of languages in the world, among which Latin in no way stands out as the best, most interesting or most elegant. The sheer awkwardness of the idea that English should not end sentences with prepositions is captured in the fact Lowth himself wrote, when arguing against it, “This is an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to,” apparently not catching the irony.

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