Reader Wail Part 3: And what about that preposition ...?
Last week I talked about a reader’s complaint that I had broken a rule by splitting an infinitive in my column. This week, we’ll look at the same reader’s allegation that, in the same sentence, I committed another error. Here’s the sentence that bothered her: “Even professionals have to look these things up.”
And here’s her complaint.
“You committed that old rule about ending a sentence with a preposition,” the reader, whose name is Barbara, wrote.
Assuming she meant that I had committed an error, let’s consider her charge.
Years ago, it was popular to teach schoolchildren that it’s grammatically incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition like “to,” “at,” “with” or “for.” But that was just bad information that, unfortunately, spread like wildfire. (I’m not sure why messages that “you can’t” do something and “it’s wrong” to do something make such a powerful impression on people. But many misinformed teachers passed this
bad information on to students and, with a lot of them, it really stuck.)
Underlying all this is a valid idea: Prepositions are supposed to be partnered with objects: “to him,” “at noon,” “with cheese.” When
the preposition comes at the end, it’s split from its partner: “The cheese you top your burger with.” But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
As I’ve written here before, the experts are unanimous:
“The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.” – Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage
“Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.” – “The Elements of Style”
“Good writers don’t hesitate to end their sentences with prepositions if doing so results in phrasing that seems natural.” “Garner’s Modern American Usage” calls it.
“Superstition.” -- H.W. Fowler
But that’s just part of Barbara’s mistake. In my sentence, "up" was part of something called a phrasal verb: “to look up.” A phrasal verb, also sometimes called a multi-word verb, is usually a verb plus preposition combo in which the preposition actually changes the meaning of verb and so is integral to it. "Don't give up!" Even the people who object to sentence-ending prepositions would have no trouble with that because it's a different animal.
The bad news for Barbara is that there's no rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. But the worse news is that I didn't.