In grade school, many children learn that sentences should not end with prepositions. However, this "rule" has no real grammatical basis and can make sentences hard to read. This post explains how to safely use sentence-ending prepositions—and when a more concise phrase is better.
What Is A Preposition?
Let's start by quickly defining the term "preposition," as I know that many people (even native speakers) are a bit hazy on what, exactly, falls under this category. A preposition is used with a noun (called an "object") to define a relationship such as time, direction, location, or ownership.
In the following examples, the prepositions are in green, and the objects are underlined:
Mr. Foley lives in a van down by the river.
Instead of a birthday cake, Renata would like a pie.
The stars and stripes of the American flag have symbolic meanings.
I have an appointment on the day after tomorrow. (Both "on" and "after" are prepositions.)
Ali would like to find someone to attend the dance with.
Notice that, in the last example, the preposition is at the end of the sentence. In the next section, I explain more about why this is acceptable .
The most common prepositions are "at," "by," "for," "from," "in," "on," "to," and "with." Here are some other common ones:
about, above, across, after, against, along, around, because of, before, behind, below, beside, between, down, during, except, inside, instead of, into, like, near, off, on top of, onto, outside, over, past, since, through, toward, under, until, up, upon, within, without*
To be used correctly, a preposition must connect a main noun or verb with an object; if the object is missing, the relationship that the preposition is meant to describe will be unclear, and the sentence will be confusing. However, the object can come before the preposition. Read on for more information.
What Is The "Rule," And Why Can I Ignore It?
Old-fashioned grammarians argued that all prepositions should be immediately followed by their objects. The logic of this is that every preposition needs an object, so the two should be placed next to each other. Indeed, in ordinary use, objects do usually follow their prepositions. You can see this in the first four examples above.
However, plenty of common constructions end with prepositions. The old authorities believed that these constructions should be rephrased with the "proper" form—the preposition before the object. However, as you will see, following this rule can lead to some supremely awkward sentences.
Consider the fifth example above, as rephrased to follow this rule:
Ali would like to find someone with whom to attend the dance.
Here, the added pronoun "whom" is the new object (it refers to the original object, "someone"). This version is grammatical, but hardly anyone actually talks this way, so it sounds odd. It is also wordier than the original sentence. Here are two other examples; see which version of each sounds better to you:
Jules could not figure out what the tools were used for. Jules could not figure out for what the tools were used.
I found a brochure under the chair I was sitting on. I found a brochure under the chair on which I was sitting.
You probably prefer the first version of each sentence—the one ending in the preposition. (If you prefer the second version, that's fine too! It is also grammatical.)
Note that, in many cases, either version sounds fine. If so, use whichever sounds better for your purposes. The version ending in the preposition will sound a bit less formal, so use that if writing informally, and use the other version if writing more formally. For instance, either of these sentences is acceptable, but the latter would be a bit better in a formal paper:
Candidates should state the principles that their policies are based on. Candidates should state the principles on which they base their policies.
When Is It Better To Rephrase Sentences Ending In Prepositions?
Let's close by examining a few cases in which sentences that end in prepositions should be rephrased, even though they are grammatical. The location of the preposition is not really the problem, but it is often a symptom of a wordy construction earlier in the sentence. When the wordy construction is replaced with a more concise version, the resulting sentence usually does not end in a preposition.
Consider these sentences. Can you think of a way to write each in fewer words?
Roads and bridges were the main topics that the committee was focused on.
The three friends examined the room that they had just walked into.
Each sentence has a wordy clause (starting with "that"). This is often the case with sentences that end in prepositions. Such sentences are grammatical, but the "that" clauses can often be integrated into the sentences to make them more concise. For instance, the examples can be written instead as follows:
The committee focused on roads and bridges.
The three friends walked into the room and examined it.
These versions have slightly different focuses than the originals, but the meanings are essentially the same, and they are noticeably shorter and easier to read. When you end a sentence in a preposition, I'd recommend trying to restructure the sentences in this way. If you can find a more concise version that still communicates your intent, then use it.
I hope that this post has been helpful. Please let me know if you have any questions about how to use prepositions or about whether a sentence should be rephrased. I'm always happy to help. And, of course, if you would rather not worry about such issues in your writing, Elevation Editing would be happy to take care of that for you. Thank you for reading!
* Some prepositions can be other parts of speech. Notably, "to" is often used with a verb in what is called an "infinitive" (as in "I want to eat pizza"). Some prepositions (e.g., "on," "up," "along," "through," and "over") are also adverbs (as in "The lake was small, so they swam across"; here, "across" modifies the verb "swam"). A few others (e.g., "before," "after," and "since") are also conjunctions (as in "Jon was hungry, for he had not eaten all day"; "for" connects two complete thoughts). Ending a sentence with an adverb is usually fine, but ending one with a conjunction is ungrammatical, as a clause must always follow a conjunction.