Every time I mention the no-sentence-final-prepositions rule as an example of unfounded prescriptivism, I always get a response from someone along the lines of “Oh, no prescriptivist actually believes that anymore.” I assure you some still do. Others have rejected the blanket prescription that all sentence-final prepositions are unacceptable, but they’ve replaced that idea with a strange half-prescription that only some final prepositions are okay. In either case, they’re still wrong.
Let’s review the basic history of the idea that you shouldn’t end clauses (especially complete sentences) with prepositions. The entire idea that there is something wrong with sentence-final prepositions was popularized by John Dryden back in the 17th century. Looking over a play by Ben Jonson from 1611 (around 60 years before Dryden was writing), Dryden remarked on Jonson’s line “The bodies that those souls were frighted from“, noting
“The Preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observ’d in my own writings.”
Dryden never saw fit to explain why this sentence-final preposition was a fault.* Before, during, and after the 17th century, sentence-final prepositions have been commonplace in speech and writing. No one’s ever really had a good explanation for why they’re opposed to them. The only reason you’d want to avoid clause-final prepositions is that they aren’t common in formal writing, and that’s the case largely because of the misguided prohibition against them.
But mistaken beliefs die the hardest, and so people still occasionally point out sentence-final prepositions to me as an obviously bad thing. It’s irritating enough when these are people who have no reason to know any better and are merely reciting out-of-date prescriptions. It’s much worse when it’s someone who clearly should know better out there advocating that there is a germ of truth in the preposition lie. For instance, I saw on Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Grammar Myths that she says it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. But only sometimes:
“You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition when the sentence would mean the same thing if you left off the preposition. That means ‘Where are you at?’ is wrong because ‘Where are you?’ means the same thing. But there are many sentences where the final preposition is part of a phrasal verb or is necessary to keep from making stuffy, stilted sentences: ‘I’m going to throw up,’ ‘Let’s kiss and make up,’ and ‘What are you waiting for’ are just a few examples.”
So don’t allow a sentence-final preposition unless the revision is worse. But that advice only makes sense if there is something inherently wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. Note that (like Dryden) Grammar Girl does not address the issue of why sentence-final prepositions are ever bad, instead taking it as given. In fact, in a longer piece on sentence-final prepositions, she writes
“When you could leave off the preposition and it wouldn’t change the meaning, you should leave it off. Really, I can’t believe anyone would make such a silly mistake!”
Apparently it’s such a silly mistake that it need not be justified. But if sentence-final prepositions are so silly, then presumably you can only leave them in if the alternative is really awkward, even more awkward than the silly sentence-final prepositions would be.
If we look back at Grammar Girl’s acceptable final-preposition sentences — “I’m going to throw up,” “Let’s kiss and make up,” and “What are you waiting for?” — it’s trivial to make reasonable versions without the final prepositions: “I’m going to barf”, “Let’s kiss and reconcile,” “Why are you waiting?”. If you find sentence-final prepositions to be worth avoiding, I can’t see why you wouldn’t switch to these prepositionless alternatives. Unless, and I’m only going out on a limb here, your proscription is totally arbitrary.
You might argue, as I think Grammar Girl is doing, that there’s a difference in that the for in What are you waiting for? needs to be in the sentence as written, while the at in Where are you at? could be omitted. The latter sentence therefore goes against Strunk & White’s famous Omit Needless Words dictum. However, as many reasonable people have pointed out (look at this Jan Freeman column, for instance), Omit Needless Words is not a grammar rule of English, no matter how hard Strunk & White try to convince you otherwise. In fact, let me illustrate it with part of the first sentence of Grammar Girl’s own article:
” [...] ending a sentence with a preposition is often unfairly labeled ‘undesirable grammar construction number one’ by people who were taught that prepositions have a proper place in the world [...]“
All three of those bolded words could be removed without hurting the syntax of the sentence. That would leave us with the sentence “[it's labelled undesirable by] people taught prepositions have a proper place in the world”, which is a real rubbish sentence. Sure, you could remove these words, but you’ll make the sentence hard to parse. If you want even stronger examples of Omit Needless Words taking you places you don’t want to go, consider these two famously incomprehensible psycholinguistic examples:
(1a) The horse raced past the barn fell.
(1b) The coach smiled at the player tossed the frisbee.
It is often good to avoid wordiness and rambling. Brevity is the soul of wit and all that. (I’m sure that, after getting this far into this post, you doubt I believe either of those statements.) But there is a difference between rambling and including a two-letter preposition of debatable necessity. You are not required to drop every word you can, nor are you supposed to. Merely being able to remove a word is not sufficient reason to do so.
Grammar Girl should know that, and at some unconscious level, she does. A reader pointed out that she herself said in one podcast “That’s where it’s at.” That’s standard in informal English, because you don’t end sentences with it’s**, and adding at suddenly makes the sentence valid again. But instead of noting this as evidence against the made-up preposition-proscription, she embarrassedly apologized for it. There’s no need to. You know it’s right, Grammar Girl! To thine own language be true.
Summary: There’s no reason to muck about with silly half-proscriptions. Clause- and sentence-final prepositions are always grammatical, although they can sound informal due to the 400 years of exile they’ve had to endure. Listen to your sentence and decide for yourself whether the final preposition sounds appropriate for the formality level you’re aiming at.
*: David Crystal, in The Fight for English, notes that Dryden was against ending sentences with “an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word” because this reduced their “strength”, but he gave no further reason, nor any reason specific to prepositions. And Dryden regularly broke this rule, ending sentences in his own grammar book with such inconsiderable words as it or him.
**: I was tempted to say you don’t end sentences with any contractions, but then I remembered the once-cool Jimmy Eat World song If You Don’t, Don’t. I think only not-contractions can end sentences, but I’m not willing to bet on it.