The Origins of the Rule of the Dangling Preposition


Every civilized society has a clearly defined set of rules to regulate the lives of its inhabitants.  Lack of rules would mean absolute chaos.  Legal rules discussed in Congress are called laws and rules originated by other social organizations are just called rules.  Such is the case of English grammar rules.  As an example let’s discuss the rule about dangling prepositions.

It’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.  Proper English grammar dictates that English sentences should not end in prepositions.  A dangling preposition is a preposition that is the last word of a sentence or clause like,  “What are you thinking about?” According to true English grammar purists, one should never end a sentence or a clause with a preposition.  It’s a sin to do so raged the English purists.

“Who are you going with?”

“Which box did you put it in?”

“Who’s the letter addressed to?”

Do the above sound perfectly correct to you?  Well, grammatically speaking they’re not.  They’re certainly accepted in everyday speech, and it’s fine if your coworkers, relatives and friends talk that way.  But each of the above is technically incorrect, because each one ends with a preposition devoid of its object.  In short, it “dangles.”

When using prepositions, they must always be followed by their objects.  They may not stand alone.  That is the rule which we should follow if we consider ourselves to write proper English.  Below is the correct way to write the three examples above:

“With whom are you going?”  (Preposition with followed by its object whom)

“In which box did you put it?”  (Preposition in followed by its object box)

“To whom is the letter addressed?”  (Preposition to followed by its object whom)

What is the reason for the rule of the dangling preposition?  Well, it dates back to the 17th century in Great Britain to a writer named John Dryden who is believed to be the first person to posit that English sentences should not end in prepositions because it was against the rules of Latin grammar.

Dryden created the prescription against preposition stranding in 1672 when he objected to Ben Johnson’s 1611 phrase, “the bodies that those souls were frightened from,” although he didn’t offer an explanation of the rationale that gave rise to his preference.  The real reason was a political one.  John Dryden was a writer representative of the Restoration movement in England after puritanical Oliver Cromwell and Parliament was defeated in 1660.

Puritans” as the name given to the 16th century to an extreme group of Protestants within the Church of England who thought the English Reformation had not gone far enough in reforming the doctrines and structure of the church.  They wanted to purify their national church by eliminating every shred of Catholic influence.  In addition, they wanted the Church of England purified of any liturgy, ceremony or practices which were not found in the Scripture.  Thus the name “Puritans.”  The Bible was their sole authority, and they believed it applied to every area and level of life.

One of the main belief of the Puritans was that if you worked hard, you would get to heaven.  Pointless enjoyment was frowned upon.  Many inns and theaters were all closed down.  Most sports were banned.  Boys caught playing football on a Sunday could be shipped as a punishment.  In some districts bear-baiting, cock-fighting, horse-racing and wrestling were banned.  Betting and gambling were also forbidden.  Large numbers of ale-houses were closed.  Even theaters were closed.

The Puritans lost control after the Restoration in 1660.  The term “Restoration” is used to describe both the real event by which the monarchy was restored, and the several years afterwards in which a new political settlement was established.  Theaters reopened after having been closed and women were allowed to perform on stage for the first time.

In literature perhaps the most outstanding result of the Restoration was the reopening of the theaters, which had been closed since 1642, and a consequent great revival of the drama.  The drama of the period was marked by the brilliance of wit and licentiousness, which may have been a reflection of the freeness of court manners.  This historical period is vividly brought to life in the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, and in poetry the Restoration is distinguished by the work of John Dryden and a number of other poets.

It is a literature that include the hysterical attack on theaters from Jeremy Collier, and pioneering of literary criticism from John Dryden and John Dennis.  The English rule of the dangling preposition is a direct result of a reaction of the loose court manners of the new monarch Charles II.  English grammar is thus tainted by political events.

About ending a sentence with a preposition some English experts say that you shouldn’t take it too seriously.  “Forget about it.”  If ending a sentence with a preposition is more graceful than not, go ahead and do it. Clarity, simplicity, and grace are what good writing is all about.  I understand that the Columbia and Chicago style manuals agree on this matter.  We all know the famous Winston Churchill line about ending a sentence with a preposition: “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.”  Some rules can be broken, as long as the communication is clear and graceful like a cloudless sky.

And now you know the controversial story behind the English grammar rule about dangling prepositions.  Good Day.

11 thoughts on “The Origins of the Rule of the Dangling Preposition”

  1. It’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. Proper English grammar dictates that English sentences should not end in prepositions.

    Says who? This is just an appeal to authority, not a serious argument. I’ve discussed on my own blog that we should infer grammar by observing how people speak and it’s clear as day that final prepositions are grammatical in English. As far as style or formal writing goes, you can make up rules about avoiding them all you like, but I think it’s a mistake to say they are ungrammatical.

  2. “In general, especially if your audience is strict about rules, don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Prepositions are little words that indicate position and such: with, at, by, from, etc. In general a preposition should come before (“pre”-position) the noun it modifies.”

    I can see that you are in agreement with my assertion that strict formal English requires that sentences should not end with a preposition. This rules dates back to the days of John Dryden (1631-1700), literary critic, poet, translator and playwright. This is the English purist who is believed to be the first person to posit that English sentences should not end in prepositions because it was against the rules of Latin grammar.

    However as I said in my last paragraph, you can break the rule if you feel it communicates better your message as you correctly stated. Even Winston Churchill was happy to end a sentence with a preposition.

    In the English language nothing is written in stone. That’s why it’s often said that English is like a living creature, always changing.

    Thank you for commenting in Lingua Franca.

    Regards,

    Omar.-

    1. I suppose you’re right, Omar. Other languages have been written in stone, but English tends toward paper. Of course, these days it’s just a series of zeroes and ones.

  3. I happen to agree – there are many, many times when following the “rule” does nothing but separate a writer or speaker from the intended audience. Carried to an extreme, it says, “I’m smarter than you are” – not to mention more pretentious!

    I can’t provide any examples right now, but I know there are times when I “pre-position” the preposition – and I’m always aware of it when I do, because I think long and hard about whether it’s the right thing to do. There is another, third way, that I sometimes follow – which is eliminating the preposition altogether. Instead of, “I’m going to see if Alice wants to go with”, I’d just say, “I’m going to see if Alice wants to go”.

    When writing dialogue, of course, most prepositions are going to dangle and sway in the breeze, because that’s the way people talk!

  4. Morning Linda:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Clear communications with others will always prevail over rigid grammar rules. That is true in English, photography and just about any other creative process. Rules are only general guidelines to help you with a particular activity. If you want to follow them, well and good, but breaking them in order to get your point across is always a wise decision.

    Eliminating the preposition altogether is a prudent action, I’ll also agree with that as well. Your example is well taken.

    Thank you for your well thought out comments.

    Regards,

    Omar.-

  5. Hi Omar,

    I am not an English major but have been teaching the language for a few years now due to my current job as an ESL instructor to other Asian nationals. I’ve got some reference books here on grammar which state that ‘In questions beginning with Who/What/Which/Where…?, prepositions usually go at the end. So I believe it’s perfectly alright to say or write;
    ‘Where are you from?’
    ‘What do you want to talk to me about?’
    ‘Who do these books belong to?’
    ‘Which hospital is he in?’
    ‘What is it like?’

    -without becoming a disgrace to the integrity of the English grammar. Pardon me for my punctuation. I’m still very much a work-in-progress. 🙂

    I’ll have to admit this ‘dangling preposition’ is unfamiliar to me. But I appreciate learning what the purists have to say. Interesting topic, I must say.

    Warm Regards.

  6. Hello Marj:

    It makes me very happy to hear from you again. I’m not an expert in English either. I live in Panama in Central America which is a Spanish-speaking country. Spanish is my native tongue.

    Having said that, I’ve been studying the English language since I was six. My father used to work for an American company exporting bananas to the United States and I worked for Texaco for many years. That means I’ve been exposed to the English language for years. But you never seem to learn everything. I love the language and study it every day, at least four hours a day.

    Now and then I write something about the use of the language so others out there who are also struggling to learn the language, will learn bits and pieces about this fascinating Lingua Franca.

    Thank you for commenting on my blog. It gives me great pleasure.

    Kind Regards,

    Omar.-

  7. In and of itself, ending a sentence in a preposition does not destroy our ability to communicate. What will destroy it, though, is to accept that any language construct is ok as long as the speaker and the listener understand each other – unless, of course, their goal is to only be understood by each other. The further we allow the English Language to drift from its early days the less we will be able to understand those early literary works. Over time, all association between the “English” language and early writings, including such important writings as the Magna Carta and the 17th and 18th century political writings from around the world upon which the United States are founded, will be lost. Those writings will be seen as written in a foreign and unknown-to-most language. Our descendants will not be able to understand our letters to their own forefathers.

    Language and the rules of language are very important to understanding history. We should use caution and restraint when considering changes to how language works.

    1. In a way, this is happening, even as we speak. I am not a native English speaker and thus, have encountered a high degree of difficulty in understanding English from the 18th and 19th century. For example, everybody agrees that “Moby Dick” authored by Herman Melville in an epic American novel. Yet reading it was extremely difficult. If we go back to the works of William Shakespeare, the comprehension of such literature is dramatic. I’m afraid, the English language is so dynamic, that it will change whether we like it or not. Take for example the English idioms. Recently I read an expression that left me completely in the dark; “getting him to mow the lawn is tougher than trying to put socks on a rooster.” It was explained to me later. A then, and only then, I got it.

  8. Just a comment on your summary of the Puritans. They adamantly opposed a works-based theology. They believed in salvation by grace alone. Please see Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where Edwards explicitly criticizes folks who think they have eternity in their own hands.

    1. Hi Eileen,

      Thank you for your interesting feedback. It amazes me how much passion the study of languages raises amongst different people all over the globe.

      I agree with Jonathan Edwards; we don’t have “eternity in our own hands.”

      Regards,

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