We’ve all heard the old rule: never end a sentence with a preposition. But as language evolves and times change, does the supposed “rule” still stand? Can you end a question with the preposition “for”?
You can end a question with the preposition “for.” Despite the traditional assumption that you should never end a sentence with a preposition, doing so is not technically nor grammatically incorrect. Ending a sentence or question with a preposition often avoids the awkward phrasing that would otherwise result.
Whether you should or should not end a sentence with a preposition has been a matter of debate for quite some time. To better understand the difference between a grammar rule and your writing style, keep reading.
You Can End a Question With “For”
As we’ve stated, ending a question with “for” is not wrong. You should end your sentence with a preposition in certain situations, especially if an attempt to avoid doing so makes your writing sound awkward or stilted.
We’ll discuss in more detail why ending your sentences with prepositions is not wrong and how you can be sure you are phrasing your sentences correctly when it comes to issues of grammar versus style.
Placing Prepositions: a Formal Versus Informal Tone
Imagine that you are at a train station waiting for a friend when you receive a phone call from a family member who asks you, “For whom are you waiting?”
You might wonder why your close family member is speaking to you so formally. You may even ask yourself if the way they’ve phrased their question is correct.
The short and simple answer is that the sentence is not wrong, but the speaker may hold to the tradition that you should not end a sentence or a question with a preposition. Thus, “for” appears at the beginning of the sentence instead of at the end.
Let’s compare the two quickly. One question below begins with “for,” and the other ends with it.
- For whom are you waiting?
- Who are you waiting for?
While it avoids a dangling preposition (a preposition at the end of a sentence), the first sentence is very formal in tone and almost unnatural sounding. The second sentence is a lot more casual, especially when speaking to friends and family members. It is a more standard, familiar way to ask the question.
Here’s another example:
- What are you looking for?
- For what are you looking?
Again, the latter sentence is very formal in tone, while the first is casual and informal. When you phrase your question with the preposition “for” at the end versus the beginning, you are communicating with a more relaxed, conversational tone.
So, which is correct? Both are correct. It is simply a matter of choice.
To determine which you should choose depends heavily on your audience, whether in writing or speaking, and if you are writing for a formal audience, such as a scientific paper or journal, or an informal one, such as a letter to a friend.
When to Change Your Phrasing for Formality
If you are writing a formal essay, speaking to someone of high stature or that perhaps you do not know well, or composing an article for a renowned magazine, you may want to avoid ending your sentences with prepositions.
For example, if your audience is an instructor for whom you are writing a research paper, you may want to avoid ending a question with “for.”
While both examples below are correct, the first example is a better option for a formal audience. The second is perfectly acceptable if you are speaking with a family member, friend, or colleague.
- For whom are you writing?
- Who are you writing for?
Additionally, some common colloquial expressions in English end in prepositions. A colloquialism is simply a familiar word or phrase that you can use in casual conversation. In English, these phrases include, for example, “Thanks for stopping by!” or “He needs to calm down.”
Both “by” and “down” are prepositions, but these phrases are very common in casual conversation, and moving the preposition would not make sense — it may also confuse your listener or reader.
Suffice to say that the key here is that ending your sentences with a preposition is mostly a matter of style.
It is not a grammatical rule that you cannot break, with the exception of occasions where including a preposition at the end of your sentence is unnecessary — we’ll take a look at that in more detail.
Ending a Sentence With a Preposition
So far, we’ve learned that ending a sentence or a question with a preposition, such as “for,” is not a grammatical rule but, rather, a matter of style. Still, that doesn’t mean you can throw prepositions at the end of all of your sentences and questions.
But first, let’s understand why many of us have come to believe that ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong.
The History Behind the Preposition Rule
Like many rules and regulations, the rule that you should not end your sentences with a preposition originated some time ago, and most never learn how it came about.
While there is some disagreement about where exactly the rule originated, it may date back as early as the 17th century with a famous poet, John Dryden, who was bothered and found fault in others who would end their sentences with prepositions (source).
And even earlier than the 17th century, others have found that grammarian scholars held a similar belief that you should place prepositions in a particular order in your sentence.
You may be wondering why that was the case and whether we should retain the instruction of these elder, ancient masters of language. However, we must consider that these few held to this belief because they hoped to keep English grammar aligned with Latin.
In Latin, a preposition must come in front of a noun (source). Therefore, ending a sentence with a preposition would be incorrect. If Latin were the language you used most, as it was for many scholars, it would follow that adopting a similar rule for English grammar makes sense.
Additionally, many grammarians felt that ending a sentence with a preposition sounded unsophisticated but would accept doing so in casual conversation.
By the 20th century, most grammar guides concluded that ending sentences and questions with prepositions is not at all wrong. Rather, it is a matter of preference. Even today, you will find that a few scholars and writers still hold the rule steadfast. And, that is a matter of writing style.
Our best advice is to know your audience. Suppose you know your audience and can determine the necessary formality level. In that case, you will be able to decide on whether you should go ahead and end your sentence or question with a preposition or rephrase it so that it appears before the object.
“Ending a Sentence With a Preposition Is Something up with Which I Will Not Put”
There is an interesting quote that helps to illustrate the difference between grammar rules and style.
Now that you know more about prepositions and where to use them in your sentences, you may have read the above heading a few times before discerning that the speaker purposefully avoided ending the quote with a preposition.
The quote is not wrong, but it certainly sounds odd, confusing, even.
Winston Churchill, a prolific writer, published more than 40 books and hundreds of articles (source). He also held a few high posts in government and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
The above quote is not quite what Churchill may have said, but it’s close. What he may have said, though there is some speculation that he did not say it at all, was, “This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put” (source).
Interestingly, many who have used this quote to support the rule that you should not end a sentence with a preposition may be misinterpreting his purpose.
Having been criticized on occasion for ending his own sentences with prepositions, he was being ironic, showing that phrasing a sentence to avoid a preposition at the end results in quite an odd-sounding statement.
The major takeaway is that even the most talented of writers have happily ended their sentences and questions with a preposition — and so can you.
Rules Governing Prepositions
Earlier, we mentioned that there are instances where you should indeed avoid ending with a preposition, including when it is not necessary.
Remember that prepositions are words that show direction, time, place, location, spatial relationships, or introduce an object (source). There are quite a few common prepositions, including “for,” “to,” “in,” “of,” “toward,” “under,” “upon,” “with,” and many more.
The word “for” particularly shows that someone is intended to receive something, states the purpose of an object or action, shows a length of time or distance, indicates a particular date or time, shows what or whom a person is employed by, shows the cost of something, or shows what or whom you support or agree with (source).
Going back to our earlier example, “Who are you waiting for?”, the word “for” shows the purpose of an action (waiting).
One additional note to remember is that, unlike many other words, prepositions never change form, regardless of the tense of your sentence. So whether you are writing in the past tense, present tense, or future tense, the preposition will always stay the same — you’ll never need to add an -ed ending or change the spelling.
Prepositions and Objects
Prepositions require an object, which is why you’ll use prepositions in the middle of your sentences more than you will at the end. An object is the person or thing that receives the action, and with reference to prepositions, the object gives the preposition meaning.
But doesn’t that mean ending a sentence with the preposition is wrong if there is no object? No, not really. It simply means that your preposition may be acting as an adverb or is necessary for clarity.
Here’s an example:
- What did you drive over?
In this sentence, the preposition “over” appears at the end. Not only is it correct, but it is also necessary. Moreover, without it, the sentence would not be clear. You cannot write, “What did you drive?” when asking someone why they have a flat tire. Without “over,” the question is not clear, and your reader or listener can misinterpret it.
Here’s an example where an object is necessary for the preposition to have meaning:
- The boy is in.
If you read this sentence, a few questions likely come to mind. The boy is in where? Is it a bet, or is the boy inside something? The object clarifies the meaning of the preposition, “in.”
- The boy is in the house.
With the object “house,” we better understand what the writer or speaker is communicating.
Avoiding Unnecessary Prepositions
Sometimes, ending your sentences and questions with prepositions is not necessary.
The rule in this regard is that if you don’t need a preposition for clarity or meaning, you should not use one at the end of your sentence.
Here’s a common example: “Where are you at?”
The question is clear enough. You may have even heard a few teenagers speak like this when talking with friends. But, “at” is completely unnecessary and sounds too informal, almost slang.
You do not need to add “at” at the end of this sentence to communicate the question clearly, so in that case, it’s always better to remove it.
The same is true for some prepositions in the middle of your sentence. If they are not necessary for clarity or meaning, you don’t need to use them.
If you write “My dog jumped off of the bed,” it is not wrong. But you don’t need the preposition “of” here. The meaning is the same without it, and you will not run into any risk of confusing your reader if you simply write, “My dog jumped off the bed.”
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Prepositions can be tricky. If you want to learn more about them, take a look at “Appreciation of or for: When to Use Each Preposition in Conjunction with Appreciation.”
So, after all, ending (or not ending) sentences with prepositions is not so much a grammatical rule that you need to memorize, but rather an understanding of the difference between grammar and style.
Your style will also depend heavily on your audience. Remember that, at times, when writing for a formal audience, you’ll be better off avoiding ending with a preposition if you can. Otherwise, go ahead and let it go. Unless, of course, the preposition itself is unnecessary.