What’s the preposition rule for?

Grammar blackboardOr: For what is the preposition rule?

Grammatically speaking, ending a sentence with a preposition (on, in, for, of, as etc.) is against the rules and the bane of English language pedants’ existence (along with stray apostrophes and young people in general). But why?

When encountering an unlabeled envelope, do they ask, “For whom is this letter?” or do they ask, “Who is this letter for?”

I truly hope it is the latter, for ‘tis the only way they will get a response that doesn’t comprise an undertone of mockery.

There is also no particular reason for this rule. Most rules in grammar are in place to ensure clarity of meaning, yet this rule adds no clarity. So, why does it exist?

The most likely answer is that in the seventeenth century, English scholars who were involved in the development of the first books on English usage were also Latin lovers (the language that is, not our Latin American friends). Within the confines of Latin, there is no way to end a sentence with a preposition. As many of the rules for English usage come from Latin, it is most likely that the seventeenth century ancestors of today’s pedants decided that if you can’t do it in Latin, then you shouldn’t do it in English.

Having said all that, there are still times when you probably should follow the rule. Very formal writing, and writing for universities and scholars should probably follow the rule book. But, if you’re ever criticised for ending a sentence with a preposition, feel free to tell the criticiser that Shakespeare, Jane Austen, James Joyce and many more classic literary authors have all broken the rule without damaging their reputations.

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3 thoughts on “What’s the preposition rule for?

  1. I always thought that wasn’t really a rule, but was passed on to students by teachers with only a rudimentary knowledge of English grammar. But it’s interesting to note that it’s based on Latin verbs, just as the “rule” to never split an infinitive (as I just did) is based on Latin. Julius Caesar and all his armies couldn’t split a Latin infinitive.

    • Thanks for getting the discussion going, Laura!

      When is a rule a rule? You will find this preposition “rule” (instruction perhaps?) in reputable grammar books, and certainly in many textbooks. If it’s not technically a rule then it certainly a commonly held belief that it is a rule, which may or may not be the same thing…

      If the people who wrote the rule books were wrong, does that make the rules wrong, or not rules? There’s a discussion to be had there too I think 🙂

      As you suggest, the split infinitive is another example of something commonly believed to be a rule, but doesn’t seem to have a basis outside of Latin. Although split infinitives can lead to misunderstanding, whereas I don’t believe ending a sentence with a preposition does.

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