Don't end sentences with prepositions? What are you talking about?
Freshman: “Sir, can you tell me where the dining hall is at?”
Professor: “Don't you know that you shouldn't end a sentence in a
Freshman: “OK, can you tell me where the dining hall is at, asshole?”
From the time we entered high school we were taught not to end sentences
with a preposition; to do so was ungrammatical. Why it was ungrammatical,
however, was never explained.
Mind you, there were some rebels who discounted this prescription. In
Fowler's Modern English Usage, first written in 1925, by Henry and Francis
Fowler stated “It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be
kept true to their name and placed before the word.” Fowler adds that this
practice was seen as “inelegant” and “represents what used to be a very
general belief, and is not yet dead.” Almost a century after Fowler wrote
these words, the canard is still not properly dead and buried.
In an attempt to give this “superstition” a proper funeral, I thought it might
be instructive to explain how it came about in the first place. If we must
fault some group or person, the blame falls on English Puritans and Dryden;
John not Ken. Let me explain.
If you remember your English history, in the mid 17th century the country
undergoes a civil war. On one side you have the monarch Charles I and on
the other you have Parliament with many of the parliamentarians being
Puritans. The Puritans prevailed and Charles I is beheaded as a result. The
Puritans viewed many pastimes such as drinking, gambling and theatre as
vices and as a result for over two decades when the Puritans held power no
new plays were published. When Charles II reclaimed the throne some years
later the theatre was restored but naturally there was a dearth of new plays
for almost thirty years.
John Dryden was a late 17th century poet and playwright who took umbrage
that the public preferred the plays of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare
over his, particularly because these gentlemen had been deceased for over
When his play The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards was staged in
1672 he ended it with an epilogue criticizing his audience's greater
appreciation of the works of Shakespeare and Jonson over his and his
contempories, and asserted that his own plays were far wittier than theirs.
Dryden, however, was not through with his braggadocio and trash-talk. Two
years later he published this play in book form an added an essay in which
he chastized the Immortal Bard for his “carelessness and ...lethargy of
thought.” One of Shakespeare's and Jonson's faux pas was allowing
sentences to end in prepositions such as in As You Like It when Rosalind
says to Orlando “Who do you speak to?” He was particularly scathing in
this essay to Jonson's play Catiline where a line reads “The... dens of beasts
could not receive the bodies that those souls were frighted from.” Dryden
characterized the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence by Jonson and
his ilk as “a common fault.”
Dryden, however, realized after writing this essay that in some of his
previous works he too had ended sentences with prepositions and went back
and corrected passages where he had committed this postpositional sin.
Dryden's Law represents the first time this dictate had been invoked by any
writer. It was an age where Latin was regarded as the most sublime
language and notwithstanding that Latin exhibited much flexibilty, it was
not possible to put a preposition at the end of a Latin sentence. In English,
though, it is possible and grammatical to boot which explains why writers
such as Shakespeare had done so. Expecting English, a Germanic language
to conform to Latinate rules makes as much sense as expecting an English
bishop to pray to Jupiter.
In any case Dryden's prescription caught on and by the 18th century while
ending a sentence in a preposition would not get you drawn or quartered, it
was nevertheless regarded as very poor form. In Bishop Robert Lowth's
1762 A Short Introduction to English Grammar he avers “Placing a
preposition inside a sentence is more graceful and perspicacious and much
better with the solemn and elevated style.” A century later in Henry Alford's
1864 The Queen's English we read “There is a peculiar use of prepositions
which is allowable in moderation but must not be too often resorted to. It is
the placing of them at an end of a sentence as I have done in the words
So now that we know that Dryden dictate not to end a sentence with a
preposition was basically a publicity stunt to elevate his stature and
diminish the standing of Shakespeare and Jonson, I hope you will agree
with me that it represents pedantic nonsense up with we should not put.
Howard Richler's book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other
mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in 2013.