Can You End a Sentence with a Preposition?

Summary

It is perfectly fine to end a sentence with a preposition. Using prepositions like to, for, in, and from at the end of a sentence is grammatically acceptable and often the more natural choice in both speech and writing.

Examples
  • Where do you come from?
  • This is the answer we were looking for.
  • This is the town I grew up in.
  • I don’t know what you’re referring to.
  • I think I know what this is about.
  • What is brown bread made of?

Terminal prepositions are grammatically fine but are thought to lend an informal tone to writing. In academic and other formal usage, they are often avoided (but only if rephrasing doesn’t result in awkwardness).

Examples
  • A population is the group about which we want to draw an inference.
  • This is the paper in which the entropy of a system was first defined.
  • On which date did you send the reminder?

Note that rephrasing to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition can result in stilted and awkward usage.

Examples
  • Acceptable: This is the world we live in.
    Unnecessary: This is the world in which we live.
  • Acceptable: Is this what you were referring to?
    Awkward: Is this that to which you were referring?

Terminal prepositions

Terminal prepositions are those that appear at the end of a sentence. Like all prepositions (to, for, in, on, from, etc.), they indicate a relationship of space and time or show other abstract relationships between the parts of a sentence.

Examples
  • I have no idea what you’re talking about.
  • What are you thinking of?
  • He is someone I believe in.
  • I can’t find anything to clean this with.
  • Whose side are you on?
  • What have we come to?
  • This is what I was looking for.

A popular grammar myth is that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. In this article, we discuss how it is grammatically acceptable to use a terminal preposition, how doing so is often the more natural choice, and why terminal prepositions are sometimes avoided in formal usage.

Preposition stranding

The reason it is thought wrong for a preposition to end a sentence is that such a construction is invariably the result of preposition stranding. In sentences, prepositions have complements. (A complement is a word or phrase that completes an expression.)

Examples
  • in the morning.
    preposition = in; complement = the morning
  • to the house.
  • under the chair.

A preposition is said to be stranded when it is separated from its complement.

Examples
  • Stranded: This is what Anita was talking about.
    preposition = about; complement = this
    Not stranded: Anita was talking about this.

Critics of terminal prepositions (which is what we call a preposition placed at the end of a sentence) say that a preposition should always take the position before its complement (pre + position = preposition). What’s interesting is that preposition stranding, while a grammatical error in Latin, is not syntactically wrong in English. In fact, preposition stranding happens naturally and often, especially in questions.

Examples
  • Who were you talking to?
  • What are you running from?
  • Whom are you rooting for?
  • This is the man I live with.
Note

Although much of its vocabulary comes from Latin, English is a Germanic language with core grammar received from Proto-Germanic. As such, the grammar rules of Latin do not automatically apply to English.

Preposition at the end of a sentence

It is grammatically acceptable and often the more natural choice to end a sentence with a preposition. Rephrasing to avoid the terminal preposition can make sentences sound awkward and stilted.

Examples
  • I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
    Rewording to avoid the terminal preposition would make this sentence sound odd (and ruin a perfectly good song): I still haven’t found that for which I’m looking?
  • Everyone is still healing from things they don’t speak about.
  • Here are some other offers you might be interested in.
  • A cat riding a horse was a strange sight to come upon.
  • Which report are you referring to?
  • This is the strangest place I’ve lived in.

In questions

Many questions in speech and writing end in prepositions.

Examples
  • What are we fighting for?
  • What is Poco talking about?
  • Which floor do you live on?
  • What am I running from?
  • What is she staring at?
  • Is there anything else you can think of?

Rephrasing such questions to reposition the preposition can make them sound odd and archaic.

Examples
  • For what are we fighting?
  • About what is Poco talking?
  • From where are you?
  • Of what else can you think?

In statements

In both speech and writing, it is fine to end not just questions but also statements with prepositions.

Examples
  • I don’t know what you’re referring to.
    More idiomatic than “I don’t know to what you’re referring.”
  • These are the moments we live for.
  • This is an odd place to live in.
  • Hope is not something you can live without.
  • That’s the book I was telling you about.
  • There’s nothing to hold it with.

With prepositional verbs

Some verbs need a preposition (e.g., agree with, consist of, depend on) to complete their meaning. With such prepositional verbs, rephrasing just to avoid the preposition at the end can make the sentence sound awkward and unidiomatic.

Examples
  • Acceptable: This is the sign you’ve been looking for.
    Awkward: This is the sign for which you’ve been looking.
  • Acceptable: Now that’s the kind of music I can listen to.
    Awkward: Now that’s the kind of music to which I can listen.
  • Acceptable: Is this really what pudding consists of?
    Awkward: Is this really that of which pudding consists?

In phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs comprise a verb and a preposition, which together form a single verb with its own meaning (e.g., give up, give in, break down). When such phrasal verbs appear at the end of a sentence, it ends in a preposition. Trying to avoid the terminal preposition in such a sentence is pointless: it will invariably render the sentence ungrammatical and meaningless.

Examples
  • Nesbit has written his resignation letter but can’t decide when to hand it in.
    To hand in is to submit something. Changing word order (hand in it) would make the sentence nonsensical.
  • Everybody needs something to look forward to.
  • When Poco sees this, he’s going to blow up.
  • The funny little heart after the slogan is something we can do away with.
  • Is this what you were looking for?

Considerations of formality

In academic and other formal writing, prepositions are not generally used to end sentences, as such usage can lend an informal, conversational tone to writing.

Examples
  • Formal: These are the participants on whom the experiment was conducted.
    Less formal: These are the participants the experiment was conducted on.
  • Formal: To whom should I address my application?
    Less formal: Who should I address my application to?

This notion of formality may originate in the idea that since Latin does not allow preposition stranding, neither does the English spoken by the educated class. However, as we have seen, ending a sentence with a preposition is often the more natural choice. Rewriting to avoid the terminal preposition in everyday usage can make you sound stuffy and pedantic.

Examples
  • We have to figure out what we’re dealing with.
    More natural than “We have to figure out with what we’re dealing.”
  • Is there anything else you can think of?
    “Is there anything else of which you can think?” would sound awkward.
  • I don’t know what you’re going on about.
    Better than “I don’t know about what you’re going on.”
Note

While it is perfectly grammatical (and idiomatic) to use a preposition at the end of a sentence, such constructions are still avoided by many in formal writing. As such, it is a question of register rather than grammar.

Examples from literature

Here are some examples from literature of sentences ending in prepositions. As you can see, terminal prepositions are commonly used and considered perfectly acceptable in writing. Many great writers, from George Eliot to Margaret Atwood, have cheerfully ended sentences with prepositions and written the better for it.

Examples
  • I believe that I began to know that there was something about my aunt, notwithstanding her many eccentricities and odd humours, to be honoured and trusted in.
    Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1849
  • No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.
    George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876
  • Every true artist is the salvation of every other. Only artists produce for each other a world that is fit to live in.
    D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love, 1920
  • Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.
    Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1927
  • The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.
    Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 1961
  • Good fiction is made of that which is real, and reality is difficult to come by.
    Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act, 1964
  • And if she has brought him to this, what has he brought her to?
    Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, 1992
  • Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.
    Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, 1993
  • But sometimes it’s hard to put up with.
    Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin, 2000
  • She wanted nothing to do with academics who would only expose her ignorance; she had no book learning to speak of.
    Anita Desai, The Zigzag Way, 2004

Quick Quiz

Which of these is grammatically correct?
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Which sounds more natural?
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Which exclamation are you more likely to hear in a coffee shop?
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Is it OK to use a preposition at the end of a sentence?
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In which of these are you more likely to find a preposition at the end of a sentence?
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Did You Know?

Intensifiers are best avoided in formal writing.
Know more:Adverbs