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Merriam-Webster says you can end a sentence with a preposition. The internet goes off

The idea that sentences can end with a preposition has become a point of contention in the replies to a tongue-in-cheek social media post from dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster.
Brandon Bell
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The idea that sentences can end with a preposition has become a point of contention in the replies to a tongue-in-cheek social media post from dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster.

Updated March 1, 2024 at 8:30 PM ET

An authority on the English language has set us free from the tethers of what many have long regarded as a grammatical no-no. Or has it?

The answer depends on how you side with a declaration from Merriam-Webster:

"It is permissible in English for a preposition to be what you end a sentence with," the dictionary publisher said in a post shared on Instagram last week. "The idea that it should be avoided came from writers who were trying to align the language with Latin, but there is no reason to suggest ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong."

Merriam-Webster had touched on a stubborn taboo — the practice of ending sentences with prepositions such as to, with, about, upon, for or of — that was drilled into many of us in grade school. The post ignited an emphatic debate in the comment section.

Many were adamant that a concluding preposition is lazy, or just sounded plain weird.

"Maybe so, but it doesn't sound expressive and at times sounds like someone isn't intelligent enough to articulate themselves," one user replied to Merriam-Webster.

Others heartily welcomed the permission granted.

"Thank you. How many times have I made an awkward sentence to avoid a preposition at the end?!?!" another person wrote.

The emotionally charged response to the post doesn't surprise Ellen Jovin, who travels the country with her "grammar table" fielding questions about Oxford commas, apostrophes and other hot-button linguistic topics.

"I spend a lot of time dealing with the Concluding Preposition Opposition Party," she said. "I know that any day that I want to start a fight, all I have to do is say something about this in public."

Why do people get so worked up?

Jovin sees concluding preposition opponents as operatives of a sort of sunk cost fallacy. People have invested a lot of time in finding ways to not end clauses and sentences with prepositions. So, when someone comes along and tells you there's no such rule, it's human nature to cling tighter to something that cost so much time and energy.

"I also think that because not ending with prepositions is associated with a more formal style — maybe some of the anger comes from a kind of pricked pomposity," she said. "Maybe sometimes they feel that someone is criticizing a larger style decision that they've made."

As for Jovin, "I end with prepositions and I'm perfectly happy with my life," she said.

The origins of the ending-preposition prohibition

Among grammarians and lexicographers, Merriam-Webster's comments are widely accepted.

It's true that in Romance languages, because they derive from Latin, a structurally sound sentence can't be made with a preposition placed at the end. But English is not a Romance language.

In the FAQ section of the entry for prepositions, Merriam-Webster states: "The people who claim that a terminal preposition is wrong are clinging to an idea born in the 17th century and largely abandoned by grammar and usage experts in the early 20th."

It's not the first time the online dictionary has tried to end the prohibition.

In response to a question posed by a user on X (formerly Twitter) in July 2020 that asked for Merriam-Webster editor Ammon Shea's opinion on "the weirdest quirk of English," Sheatook aim at the "non-issue" of whether to end a sentence with a preposition, something he said has led to "so much wasted time."

But it's tough to shake a belief that has wended its way through people's minds for more than three centuries.

Merriam-Webster credits 17th century poet John Dryden with popularizing a rule created by grammarian Joshua Poole.

In 1672, according to the publisher, Dryden chastised poet-playwright Ben Jonson for his use of the "preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him." Decades earlier, it said, Poole expressed concern with prepositions being placed in "their naturall order."

"Untold millions of people have suffered in the subsequent years as a result," the Merriam-Webster entry said.

The ending preposition is "permissible" and "not wrong." But is it right?

Even in the cases where an ending preposition sounds odd, it's still grammatical, if not the best stylistic option.

"It's very sentence-specific," said Jovin, who also runs Syntaxis, a New York City-based consultancy that teaches writing skills and email etiquette. "Many sentences where people are avoiding it, they'd be much better off just ending with a preposition."

People who latch on to a nonexistent rule risk limiting their writing and fluency, she added.

Merriam-Webster tells it like it is

To be clear, dictionary publishers such as Merriam-Webster are not rulemakers nor rulebreakers. They just report how we already speak.

"We tell you how language is used. Our goal is to tell the truth about words," says Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster who was not responsible for but backs the social media post.

Those following the false belief often don't realize they're breaking their own rule, Jovin says.

"People who say they never end in prepositions are actually mistaken," she says. "If you go and trail around after them with tape recorders, it's not what's happening."

To hammer the point home, Merriam-Webster captioned its controversial post: "That's what we're talking about." Now, does that sound better than: "That's about what we are talking"?

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Emma Bowman
[Copyright 2024 NPR]