Have you ever heard the rule where you should never end a sentence with a preposition? Well, that's not quite true in all situations.
First off, what is a preposition? Basically, prepositions are words that express a relationship between a noun or pronoun with another word or element. They can describe the position of something, time when something occurs, or the way in which something is done.
Mignon Fogarty suggests in her book, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, to see if the meaning of the sentence changes if you take away the preposition. Fogarty's example is "cheer up." "He cheered" means he is either a fan or cheerleader and "he cheered up" means he became happier.
Another example is "flip out":
He flipped out.
Both sentences are structurally correct, but the meanings aren't the same. In the former, he is excited, angry, or crazy while in the latter he is turning somersaults—two rather different images and situations.
The above examples are phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is basically a verb combined with a preposition, adverb, or both; the combination of these words builds a verb that has a different meaning than the individual words would have on their own. You could argue that sentences ending in phrases such as "flip out" and "cheer up" are not ending in a preposition since they are technically phrasal verbs. However, ending a sentence with a phrasal verb isn’t the only way sentences can end with a preposition.
Oxford Dictionary's blog identifies four situations where it is more natural to end a sentence with a preposition:
- passive structures
- relative clauses
- infinitive structures
- questions beginning with who, where, what, etc.
In those situations, avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition can lead to overly formal or Yoda-like writing.
What are you listening to?
To what are you listening?
Your reader would likely find the first sentence less jarring.
Idioms are another exception to consider. Idioms are phrases where meaning cannot be derived from the words in the phrase. For example, an unmotivated employee may be instructed to "shape up or ship out" (where "out" is a preposition). Most native speakers know this means the person is being instructed to either improve or leave.
So where did this idea come from where we absolutely cannot end a sentence with a preposition? Back in the 17th century, some well-known writers tried to inject Latin grammar rules in to English—this is also how we ended up with the "rule" where we can't split infinitives.
This doesn't mean you should end sentences with a preposition all willy-nilly while writing. Let's go back to Fogarty's advice: see if the meaning of the sentence changes if you take away the preposition. Something I hear all the time (and am guilty of saying too) is "where are you at?" Drop the "at" and the meaning of the sentence doesn't change, so this sentence would benefit from dropping the preposition at the end.
If you're in a situation where you may be judged for ending your sentences with a preposition (e.g., cover letter, proposals), consider rewriting your sentence. Otherwise, when you see a sentence that ends in a preposition, keep calm and don’t flip out! It might just be a phrasal verb.