The sentence scrawled above was Winston Churchill’s alleged response to the idea that one can’t end a sentence with a preposition, giving this fake grammar rule a particular distinction: Its legendary smackdown is as well known as the rule itself.
The whole notion about “dangling” prepositions traces back to a tossed-off remark by poet John Dryden in 1672, although what seems to have truly set the “rule” in stone is A Short Introduction to English Grammar, penned by Robert Lowth, an eighteenth- century bishop in London. Sober and pithy, this book happened to catch on and be used in classrooms into the early 1900s. Neither Dryden nor Lowth actually specified what was so wrong with prepositions coming last, but both were guided by an idea popular among writerly people of their era that good grammar was Latin-style, even in languages that aren’t Latin. Latin happens not to dangle its prepositions. However, Arabic doesn’t either, and few would espouse beginning our sentences with verbs the way the language of the Koran does.
Besides, too often, there is no way to get that preposition off the edge. Should “she refused to come in” be recast as “in she refused to come”? Of course not. Lowth was referring only to language in its Sunday best when he wagged his finger about the sentence-ending preposition, and at one point in his book, he even wrote, “This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to.” Whether Lowth was aware of the irony is something he took to his grave.
Nevertheless, many like to be told what to do, and messages get garbled over time. Countless grammar books simply put a taboo on ending sentences with prepositions. The result: a nonsensical “rule” tartly and accurately described by Kingsley Amis as “one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant slobs.”
John McWhorter is a professor of linguistics, American Studies and Western Civilization at Columbia University; his latest book is What Language Is.