Somewhere along the line, I was taught not to end a sentence with a preposition. I was taught, in other words, not to dangle my prepositions—maybe you were, too.
I’m not sure when, or from whom, I first learned this apparently incontrovertible truth, but it stuck with me throughout my graduate-school years. As a teaching assistant, I found that the power of this injunction asserted itself time and again: the student essays I corrected bore the traces of my abiding belief that those who engage in proper academic writing do not—should not—dangle their prepositions. When, after defending my dissertation, I began working as a freelance copyeditor, I was surprised to discover that it was not only students who were falling prey to the occasional on or about at the end of their sentences. The writing of tenured professors reflected a similar imprudence . . . or so I thought.
As I eventually learned, however, the choice to end a sentence with a preposition is just that: a choice, not an error to be avoided at all costs. In the end, it all boils down to context. Scour the Internet for a hard-and-fast rule regarding the placement of prepositions and you will likely be met with a statement once (purportedly) made by Winston Churchill: “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” Whether Churchill actually said this is open to debate, but the point is crystal clear: sometimes making every possible effort to avoid a dangling preposition results in a sentence that sounds stilted or overworked. Most would agree, for instance, that the sentence “That is the woman I told you about” sounds more natural than “That is the woman about whom I told you.” Sometimes prepositions are better left at the end of a sentence.
And sometimes it may prove impossible “to get that preposition off the edge” (McWhorter). Trying to rephrase a sentence such as “There is nothing to be afraid of” so that you can avoid ending it with a preposition will leave you with an alternative that is less than ideal: “There is nothing of which to be afraid” strikes one as too formal, too far removed from conventional language, even that of academic prose. Aim for writing that sounds natural rather than strained or affected and the placement of your prepositions will take care of itself.
Keep in mind, however, that not all grammatical elements should be dangled with abandon. While it may be acceptable to dangle your prepositions, be wary of dangling your modifiers, an error that can be difficult to recognize and that needs to be fixed.
McWhorter, John. “Freedom From, Freedom To: Yes, You Can End a Sentence in a Preposition.” The New Republic, 17 May 2013, newrepublic.com/article/113187/grumpy-grammarian-dangling-preposition-myth.
Published 25 February 2020