Prepositionally Yours

by Cherie Tucker

May 2017

Almost everyone knows the “rule” that says you must never end a sentence with a preposition. They irony is that most people who know this rule don’t know what a preposition is. And they don’t know that there are exceptions.

A preposition is the part of speech that shows the relationship of noun or pronoun to another word in a sentence. For example, you could be in the house. The word in tells the reader (or listener) where you are in relation to the house. You are in it. Or beside it. Or under it.

As to that ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition business, it is sometimes fine to end with one. For example, you would never say: For what is this? In everyday conversation we just say, What’s this for? The informal style allows for the preposition at the sentence’s end.

In formal writing, however, you must follow the rule.

Informal: They couldn’t determine the make of the car he was riding in.

Formal: They couldn’t determine the make of the car in which he was riding.

Informal: The person they gave the money to was surprised.

Formal: The person to whom they gave the money was surprised.

You can see from these examples that everyday, informal speech would seem stilted if the language followed the rule. Formal writing, such as in legal documents, however, still requires it.

There is one time, however, that the preposition at the end never works, and that is when the preposition is redundant. If it restates something you’ve already said, you must leave it out. The classic offence is “Where’s it at?” In this instance, merely asking “Where is it?” has already established that you are looking for the location of something. The word “where” does the job. Ask “Where are you located?” not “Where are you located at?” It’s akin to saying “He killed him dead.” – and just as unnecessary.

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.