Lies Your English Teacher Taught You: Prepositions

by • January 21, 2014

Brent Calderwood, writing, English, lies, prepositionsGuest post from Brent Calderwood

Writing is like painting. You have to know the rules before you can start experimenting with them. Think about it: Picasso had to paint a lot of pictures of horses with four legs before he started putting noses on people’s foreheads. It’s the same way with words. Good authors are playful and innovative with the English language, but they had to learn the basics first.

What makes English trickier than most languages is that it’s a hodgepodge of dozens of languages, and we keep borrowing words all the time, especially as media, travel, and politics bring different cultures into constant contact with one another.

This is a wonderful thing, but one problem is that some of the first English grammar books, written in the 1600s, were based strictly on Latin, which has a totally different structure from English. These books, and books based on these books, were used all the way into the 20th century, even though their rules didn’t always make sense for our multicultural language. Some teachers still believe these old rules; luckily, though, most English grammar and instruction books published today are setting the record straight.

One of the most common rules that teachers got wrong? Never end a sentence with a preposition.

While it’s true that prepositions usually don’t belong at the end of a sentence, some sentences just sound more “natural” with the preposition at the end. Take this one:

“I like the company I work for.”

This sentence is just fine. If you follow the “Never end a sentence with a preposition” rule, here’s the sentence you’re likely to come up with:

“I like the company for which I work.”

This is grammatically correct, but it sounds “stiff” and old-fashioned. By the way, notice that I didn’t say “Here’s the sentence up with which you’re likely to come.” That would sound ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

But wait, you might be thinking, are you saying I should just go with what sounds right? What kind of rule is that?

So here’s a good rule of thumb: If there’s an easy way to avoid ending your sentence with a preposition, go ahead and avoid it, especially if you’re writing for an academic or business audience.

In those cases, instead of “I like the company I work for,” you might want to say, “I enjoy working for this company.” Instead of “Here’s the sentence you’re likely to come up with,” you might say, “Here is the sentence you’re likely to write.” However, if you find yourself going out of your way to use “for which” or “of which” or especially “up with which” to avoid a preposition at the end of your sentence, there’s a good chance that your sentence will sound better and more natural with a terminal preposition.

And sounding natural is what good writing is all about.

Brent Calderwood is a writer, editor and activist. His award-winning essays and reviews have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review. A two-time Lambda Literary Fellowship recipient for poetry, he currently lives in San Francisco.

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