English Grammar and Usage, Reader Polls

Grammer Pole of the Weak: Ending Sentences With Prepositions

In last week’s Grammer Pole, you voted to overwhelmingly approve the use of split infinitives. Fifty-three percent of Above the Law readers said that splitting infinitives is acceptable, even if it should be done sparingly. An additional forty percent said, “Yes. It’s great to liberally split infinitives!”

This suggests to me that ATL readers are a pragmatic bunch when it comes to language. You’re not hung up on hoary rules that don’t serve a practical purpose in communication.

I think I can guess, then, what you think of the injunction against ending a sentence with a preposition….

In grammar school — yup, they call it grammar school for a reason — nuns or nun-like instructors repeatedly told us not to end sentences with prepositions. As a general style guideline, this probably isn’t a bad idea; sentences ending with prepositions can be awkward.

But is this an ironclad rule? Judge Mark Painter, author of The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing (affiliate link), thinks not:

Thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition is not now and has never been a rule of English usage. It may have derived from Latin grammar, where prepositions could not end a sentence. But Latin is a dead language — keep it buried.

Ah yes, Latin — where the “rule” against split infinitives came from. Or should I say, “from whence the ‘rule’ against split infinitives came”?

I should not, according to Judge Painter:

We should not twist our sentences into goofiness by avoiding sentence-ending prepositions. Should we write that is something about which it is not worth arguing rather than that is not worth arguing about? I think not. Even better sometimes is to avoid the preposition altogether — that is not worth discussing.

His Honor cites a familiar authority for this position: writing guru Bryan Garner, who dismisses the supposed rule against ending a sentence with a preposition as a “superstition.”

That said, the rule does raise a broader issue about legal writing, according to Judge Painter:

The problem with legal writing is not just that we shy away from ending a sentence with a preposition when it would be natural, but that we use too many prepositions.

Bryan Garner tells us that good writing uses fewer prepositions. We write docket of the court instead of the court’s docket. But the latter is much better, and it avoids a preposition. We write a distance of five miles instead of five miles. The former is simply redundant — an example of flabby writing. You can reduce the clutter in your writing by eliminating many prepositions.

No matter what the “experts” say, people will believe what they’ll believe (see, for example, climate change). So let’s take this issue to a vote:

Is it acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition?

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The Legal Writer #18: Rules That Aren’t Rules [Judge Painter]

Earlier: Prior Grammer Poles of the Weak

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