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TWTS: A rule about which we should be asking questions

Many of us were taught that a sentence should never end with a preposition. However, some sentences just sound better when they do.

Think about a parent dealing with a child who has a sheet of stickers. The parent asks, “What did you put the sticker on?”

In this example, “on” is the preposition, and “what” is the object of the preposition. Since “what” got brought up to the beginning of the question, should “on” have followed?  The question is, should the “on” have followed the “what”?

If we followed the rule, we would end up with “On what did you put the sticker?” While this is considered grammatically correct, it doesn’t sound very conversational.

The rule of not ending sentences with prepositions goes back to 1672 when English poet John Dryden criticized fellow poet and playwright Benjamin Jonson for stranding prepositions. Dryden went on to avoid this in his own writing and even revised his earlier work to follow the rule.

Interestingly, Jonson had written a grammar in 1640 that noted how English sometimes strands prepositions at the ends of sentences. He had no qualms about this.  More than a hundred years later, chemist and grammarian Joseph Priestly noted in his own grammar that stranding prepositions at the end of sentences is sometimes “more elegant.”

So what happened?

Bishop Robert Lowth wrote a grammar in 1762 in which he called stranding prepositions “an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to.” It’s unclear whether he was aware of the irony of this statement, though he did go on to say that fronting the preposition is a more graceful, more elevated style.

This is where the rule starts to show up. Lindley Murray picks it up in his best-selling grammar the English Reader. In it, Murray revises Lowth’s remark to say, “This is an idiom to which our language is inclined.”

Despite some style guides calling for more flexibility, including Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the stranded prepositions rule became hard and fast. Is this a rule by which you abide?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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