Tag Archives: prepositions

All about Prepositions

[Today’s guest writer is my friend Kelly Pomeroy. I enjoyed a recent exchange of ideas with Kelly so much that I asked her to do a guest post.]

 We’ve often heard that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. This arbitrary rule may have originated with 17th Century British author John Dryden, who greatly admired Latin – a language which did not provide for prepositions at the ends of clauses – and tried to apply its rules to English.

This thinking was picked up by Robert Lowth, an 18th Century British Anglican clergyman and biblical scholar who undertook to write a comprehensive grammar of English. He acknowledged that ending a sentence or clause with a preposition was in fact what people were doing, and that it served quite well. But perhaps he was deferring to Dryden when he added that “the placing of the Preposition before the Relative [its object] is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.”

But is it really more graceful to say “that’s the answer for which I’m looking” than “that’s the answer I’m looking for”?  No, it’s clumsy and odd-sounding.

Substitute the sentence “that’s not what I’m looking for” and there’s no way you can even rearrange it and still have passable English. “That’s not that for which I’m looking”? Try that one out if you want to receive some really odd looks.

Good English sounds natural, not contorted or “hypercorrect.” Competent writers know that and do not try to adhere to phony rules that serve only to interrupt the flow of their words.

P.S. Here are some specific examples of poor English written by people who should know better:

NASA 8/9/17:  “The best Perseid performance of which we are aware occurred back in 1993, when the peak Perseid rate topped 300 meteors per hour.”

Vice News 11/19/16:  It’s one of many economic challenges with which the government has been unable to deal….

MidSouth Week in Review 5/16/2017 “There is an app called ‘Moodies’, which can already tell in which mood you are.”

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Can You End a Sentence with a Preposition?

Can you end a sentence with a preposition? I love Winston Churchill’s answer: “That is something up with which I will not put.”

Despite Winston Churchill’s dismissal of this grammatical nonsense, most of us have had an English teacher or two warn us about putting a preposition at the end of a sentence:

I haven’t decided whom I’m going to the prom with.  AWKWARD

I haven’t decided with whom I’m going to the prom.  AWKWARD

You can see the difficulty: Both versions are clumsy. If you’re aiming for a sentence that sounds natural, you might have to start over:

I haven’t decided who’s going to the prom with me.  BETTER

Instead of worrying about that preposition at the end, we might all be better off if we tried for the smoothest, most natural wording.

Another difficulty is that many common prepositions can also act as adverbs: off, up, out, on. Even the strictest grammarian would say you’re allowed to end a sentence with an adverb. So it’s perfectly ok to end a sentence with, say, the word out if it’s used as an adverb – but woe betide you if out (the same word) is acting as a preposition.

As soon as it stops raining, I’m going to take the dog out.  BAD: out is a preposition.

Janice is in the hospital, so I’m going over to her house to help out.  GOOD: out is an adverb.

Do we really need to spend our precious time making judgments about these hairsplitting distinctions?

Here are some phrases that seem to contain prepositions but actually end in adverbs and are acceptable at the end of a sentence:

sign uplog oncheer upcarry on, step downback up

Bottom line: Use your ear to decide whether a sentence is awkward and needs rewriting. And – if you live in the Deep South – remember that ending a sentence with an unnecessary at (“Where’s Jimmy at?”) isn’t appropriate for formal writing. Stick to “Where’s Jimmy?”

 

 

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Prepositions

Many writers are wary of prepositions and prepositional phrases. They’ve got to be hard, right? After all, “prepositional” is a five-syllable mouthful of a word.

Well, there’s good news and bad news. Bad news first: Many writers make mistakes with prepositional phrases.

The good news? There’s an easy rule that will keep you out of trouble. And here’s even better news: There’s also an easier rule that works maybe 99.5% of the time.

Let’s get started.

Prepositions are small, everyday words that indicate direction or purpose. The English language has dozens of them. For now, let’s stick to six: in by for with to of.

Prepositions are rarely used by themselves. You wouldn’t say “I went skiing with.” Expressions like “with Mary,” “to the store,” “for a wedding gift, “by myself” and so on are prepositional phrases.

There are a couple of general rules of thumb that work really well with prepositional phrases. Take your pick! Either one will help you get your sentences right.

  • Skip the prepositional phrases to get the grammar right
  • Go to the beginning of the sentence.

Maybe once or twice a year you’ll come across a sentence that works differently. That means most of the time you can use one of these rules, and you’ll be fine. (If you’re curious about the exception, click here and read Rule 6.)

Let’s try a couple of examples.

The bookcase with the glass doors (need, needs) to be emptied and moved.

What will you be emptying and moving – the glass doors or the bookcase? You can either go to the beginning of the sentence (“bookcase”) or cross out “with the glass doors.”

If you go with crossing out “with the glass doors,” here’s what your sentence will look like:

The bookcase with the glass doors (need, needs) to be emptied and moved.

Answer: The bookcase NEEDS. So here’s your sentence:

The bookcase with the glass shelves needs to be emptied and moved. CORRECT

Let’s try another one:

Misunderstanding of department policies (have, has) caused many problems recently.

What caused the problems – department policies or misunderstanding? Again, you can either go to the beginning of the sentence (misunderstanding) or cross out “of departmental policies.”

Let’s try crossing out “of departmental policies”:

Misunderstanding of department policies (have, has) caused many problems recently.

Answer: Misunderstanding HAS. So here’s your sentence:

Misunderstanding of department policies has caused many problems recently. CORRECT

To learn more about prepositional phrases, click here and read Rule 4.

One more thought: There’s a reason why writers often have difficulty with prepositional phrases. Most people aren’t used to thinking about parts of sentences. It’s not a normal activity. (When was the last time you found yourself thinking, “Hey! That was a prepositional phrase!” during a conversation?)

You’re learning a new skill. Be patient with yourself, and keep reviewing and practicing. After a while it will become second nature. That’s a promise!

 

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