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  • David Puthuff

Terminal Prepositions

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

My older readers may remember a guy named Winston Churchill. One thing this guy is known for are the many quotes he gave us. One of his well-known quotes has to do with grammar and the use of prepositions at the end of sentences. A rule many of us grew up with and cling to fiercely. In one of his speeches, he is quoted as saying:

“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

Why is this? Where did this rule come from? Well, many trace it back to a guy named Robert Lowth, who was the Bishop of London during part of the 18th century. He is quoted as saying:

“This is an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of the preposition before the relative is more graceful,... And agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.”

You see, at the time, Latin was the language of scholarship. It was the language used to talk about cool stuff like religion and philosophy. If there was a scholarly, high-brow conversation to be had about anything in academia, it was carried out in Latin.

English speakers had an uncomfortable relationship with Latin, as it was the common language of the guys who kept coming across the North Sea to invade. For some odd reason, the English speakers kept trying to make the Latin rules of grammar fit into English. This can’t be done. English comes from a Germanic base and has completely different grammar rules than Latin. The English word order rules are also very different than Latin word order rules

The Latin for preposition is: prae positio (Placed Before)

For example:

In English, we say: To put the cart before the horse.

In Latin, they say: Ante equum carrum ponere. (Before – the horse – the cart – to put)

The preposition, ante, ALWAYS has to be before the word it is partnered with. In this case, equum. (the horse)

In English, I can say “The cart is the thing that the horse is before.” It is pretty awkward, but it is grammatically correct. (This is a question of style, not grammar) In Latin, though, I cannot have ante anywhere, but in front of equum. If I break these two words apart, or change their position relative to each other, a Latin speaker will have no idea what I am trying to say. What can be done in Latin though, is kind of fun.

You can put the words in any order, being careful not to separate our preposition from its partner. All three of these examples are perfectly acceptable.

Ante equum carrum ponere.

Carrum ante equum ponere.

Ponere ante equum carrum.

Now for the funny part. Let’s go back and look at Robert Lowth’s quote above. Notice the last word of the first independent clause.

“This is an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to;…”

He has done ended that thing with a preposition. Case closed.

It is perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. You are hereby released from that non-rule and free to pick any preposition to end a sentence with.

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