Blog The Merry Grammarian

Why yes, you may end with a preposition

The Merry GrammarianHere’s a question I get asked quite often as a grammar guru: Can you end a sentence in a preposition?

Yes, dear readers. Yes, you can.

Not ending a sentence in a preposition (about, off, at, too, by, etc) is yet another of those grammar myths, similar to the “rule” about not being allowed to start a sentence with a conjunction (and, but, for, yet, or, and so on. As I wrote about in a previous column, it’s totally legit to start a sentence in modern English with a conjunction). And it’s perfectly natural to end a sentence in English with a preposition.

Now, I know many of you were probably taught in school that ending with a preposition is verboten. But believe it or not, there’s never been a formal rule against it. In fact, ending with a preposition is often a clearer and easier way to speak and write in English.

Take, for instance, this example: To whom were you talking? 
Compare that with this: Who were you talking to?

Sure, the first sentence avoids ending with a preposition. But it sounds a little unnatural or dated, more fitting for the Dowager Countess than a modern American-English writer. The second is clearer and plainer—and therefore more easily understood.

Now, there may be times when ending with a preposition can sound clunky or awkward. If that’s the case, then by all means, rearrange.

Still, some may dislike the construction of a sentence that ends in a preposition, and you may find yourself edited or otherwise pressured to change your sentence. If you want to avoid controversy, then go ahead and rearrange.

But if you feel like ending with a preposition, and the sentence is clearer for it, then by all means—go for it. I promise: there are no rules against it.

–Rebecca Mahoney
The Merry Grammarian

Three Essential Grammar Texts For Any Writer

Sometimes, grammar is downright confounding. All those rules. All those exceptions. Most of us are fuzzy on at least some details. So where can you turn if you’re in need of a definitive grammar source?

The answer, my friend, is not Google. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Le Google as much as the next person. But too many times, I’ve seen people rely on Google for a grammar question, and the websites that pop up have supplied the wrong answers or have outdated information (remember, as the English language evolves, so does grammar).

Instead, turn to one of these three excellent, straightforward texts—essential reading for any writer seeking a definitive answer to their grammar query, or who simply wants to improve the mechanical side of their writing.

  1. The Elements of Style, by Shrunk & White. Don’t be fooled by the slenderness of this little book. What it lacks in weight, it makes up for in usefulness. Here, in succinct and simple prose, are the essential rules of writing clear, correct English. You’ll find grammar guidance as well as practical instruction on how to improve the clarity of your writing. There’s a reason this slim guide is on the list of required textbooks in English programs across the nation—it’s just that good.
  2. The Chicago Manual of Style. This one might be the opposite of The Elements of Style. It’s a hefty tome, even bigger than my trusty Webster’s dictionary. And where Shrunk and White are lean and clean, CMS goes into detail … deep, intense detail. But it’s got all the information you could ever possibly need, including a robust section on all the grammar particulars of the English language as well as the publishing industry’s preferred style for everything from time to titles. It’s amazing how often I turn to this book—not just when I’m proofreading, but also when I’m writing or editing other people’s work. Turning to CMS is like getting the “official” take—when other sources disagree, this is the text to which I turn.
  3. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. I love this little book on punctuation so much – the title makes it case completely. Whether you’re looking for a refresher on comma usage or just want some clarity around that controversial semicolon, this book will set you straight. And it’s funny, too (always a bonus when you’re talking about grammar). It’s great not just as a reference book, but also as a way to painlessly brush up on your punctuation rules.
The Merry Grammarian

Everything’s All Right (But Not Alright)

Here’s a short and sweet grammar lesson this week, tackling one of the more common errors I see in writing: the word alright.

Alright, also known as the one-word version of all right—is a word that is nearly guaranteed to make any grammarian cringe.

All right, as in, “Is everything all right?” is a two-word phrase. The word alrightis a word that some have adopted, likely taking their cues from altogether or already, but it’s grammatically incorrect.

You’ll see it used out there from time to time, like in Pete Townsend’s song “The Kids are Alright,” but it’s mostly used in informal writing (like blogs), or by writers who think alright is an acceptable form of all right(it’s not).

But if you want your work to look polished and professional, or if you’re writing a formal piece—like a manuscript, article, column, professional paper, etc—the correct usage is always all right.

The Merry Grammarian

Language from Across the Pond

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in the manuscripts I’m editing: a little British spelling here and there. First came “amongst,” and then “towards,” and then three separate writers apparently preferred “grey” to “gray.”

Maybe it’s an homage to Downtown Abbey? (I miss it, too!).

Whatever is fueling this trend, it’s time to set the record straight. I like my tea and scones as much as anyone else, but the grammar guru in me must clarify why we writers can’t simply slip into British English whenever we please.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Two countries, separated by a common language.” It’s a nod to the fact that though English is common to both the US and the UK, variations are everywhere – in spelling (grey versus gray), terminology (lift versus elevator), and even in punctuation (single quote marks in the UK versus double quote marks in the US).

Because there are so many variants, the grammar and style authorities have decreed that our style should be consistent. So we can write in American English or British English, but we must use that one format consistently throughout an entire piece. In other words, you can’t just use “grey” because it looks more interesting than “gray” if the rest of the piece is written in American English.

Here are a few other common British-isms that tend to slip into American-English manuscripts, per the Chicago Manual of Style:

  • Amidst and amongst: These are both the British spellings; the preferred American forms are amid and among.
  • Directional words such as backward, forward and toward do not take the terminal –s in American English. In other words, in the United States, we go toward something, not towards it.
  • Travel is the same in Britain or America, but variations on the word are different: Travelled versus traveled, travelling versus traveling, traveller versus traveler.
  • And of course, there are all those infamous –ou words: colour, flavor, humour, labour, etc. In American English, there’s no extra “u” – it’s just color, flavor, humor, and labor.
Bottom line? If your heart yearns for castles and moors, then go ahead and write in British English—just be consistent. Otherwise, resist the urge to add a splash of British sophistication, and embrace your American prose.


The Merry Grammarian

Chasing the Grammar Ghost

My sister gave me a fantastic present for my birthday last month: A T-shirt that says, “I hope I can still correct people’s grammar when I’m a ghost.”

I laughed, and then asked her where she found such a thing. As it turns out, grammar-related novelty items—T-shirts, mugs, joke books, hats, bookmarks, posters, pillows, even socks—are for sale all over the Internet. They’re funny and varied, from puns about punctuation to jokes like the one on my T-shirt.

The fact that there’s an entire cottage industry dedicated to grammar puns says something interesting: there are a lot of people out there who care about good grammar.

And it’s not just the obsessive amongst us. Studies show that people do actually judge us on our grammar skills—even if they aren’t necessarily good at grammar themselves.

Bad grammar in a cover letter or email can cost you job opportunity. Poor grammar in an op-ed piece or article can cost you your credibility. Query letters or manuscripts riddled with proofreading errors are likely to be red flags for agents and editors. Even a social media post with poor grammar will make people cringe.

Is it fair that people judge you for your grammar? Maybe not. But since the reality exists, why not take a few minutes to brush up on the grammar questions that you’re not certain about?

I find that pretty much everyone has a secret grammar question they want to ask, but are too embarrassed to do so. There’s a mentality out there that we were supposed to have mastered all the grammar rules by tenth grade or so, but the truth is, hardly any one knows all the rules. (Okay, maybe Strunk and White. But the rest of us mere mortals most certainly have a few gray areas). Instead of letting that grammar ghost haunt you, lay the issue to rest once and for all.

I’d like to invite you to send your grammar questions my way. From punctuation problems to commonly confused words (like that pesky affect and effect), send your queries via and I’ll get you squared away.

And I won’t tell a soul it came from you.