Ending a sentence with 15+ prepositions

One of daftest and dustiest old grammar myths is the unfounded rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. This fake proscription seems to have been invented by a Latin-loving John Dryden in 1672 and, like an indestructible demonic meme, continues to gnaw at people’s minds centuries later. Some even believe it.

Avoiding preposition-stranding (as it’s known) can have deliberately comical results, famously in not-Churchill’s ‘arrant nonsense up with which I will not put’. And then there’s the well-known line contrived to end in a whole stack of prepositions: ‘What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of [about Down Under] up for?’

A couple of those ‘prepositions’ might be better described as adverbs, but anyway. Variations on this line abound; until lately, though, I had never seen one so extravagant as this 15-preposition-pile monster:

What did you bring me the magazine I didn’t want to be read to out of about “‘Over Under Sideways Down’ up from Down Under” up around for?

See Futility Closet for context, involving recursion and lighthouses. After I linked to it on Twitter, a couple of people pointed out that the line cheats by ignoring the use–mention distinction – that is, many of the prepositions aren’t used as prepositions. (Also: adverbs.) But I think cheating is allowed here in the interests of silliness.

14 Responses to Ending a sentence with 15+ prepositions

  1. limr says:

    Concessions should always be made for a bit of silliness.

    I’ve tried to do similar sentences with verb phrases. So far I’ve come up with a future perfect passive: She is going to have been being talked about for hours after leaving the party.

  2. Should that sentence not end with a hyphen, followed by “over and out?”

  3. Shaun Downey says:

    Ah now 15 prepositions is a sight to behold! On the other hand the contortions needed to prevent a sentence ending in one can be quite amusing

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    I needed a good laugh, Stan, you provided. I am grateful for which.


  5. Stan says:

    Leonore: I like it. Have you sketched it in the form of a sentence diagram? Or should I say, is it going to have been being drawn?

    John: It could, but and would break the sequence.

    Shaun: It surely is, and it could be lengthened still further.

    WWW: The line raised a chuckle round here too!

  6. Steeny Lou says:

    Then there’s the grammar of Yoda…

  7. Brenda Coxe says:

    There is a limit. I still find it difficult to drop old teachings and avoid ending with a preposition unless it doesn’t make sense otherwise or sounds awkward. However, one that really gnaws at me to know end is the ever present, “Where shall we meet at?” There is no need for the “at;” the sentence is perfectly clear without it.

  8. Simon says:

    It’s not just that a couple of them “might” better be described as adverbs; a couple of those are not syntactically prepositions whatsoever, but verb adjuncts/particles–adverbs if one insists on calling them that: “up,” “sideways,” “around,” etc. There is no grammatically defensible way to argue that there are fifteen “prepositions” in a row there.

  9. Stan says:

    Brenda: The sentence is also perfectly clear with it. (You mean “to no end”, I think.)

    Simon: I wouldn’t defend such a position grammatically.

  10. David Morris says:

    I have thought about this long and hard, and I am convinced that there is a rule against ending sentences or clauses with, and it’s so strong that no-one ever breaks it, or even talks about. There are three or four or five (depending on exactly how you classify them) sentence types in English in which it is anyway feasible to end with a preposition, and 95 or 96 of 97 in which it just plain isn’t. (My first sentence, if you didn’t notice.) I know that when people talk/write about ‘ending a sentence with a preposition’, they mean those three or four or five constructions, but for completeness, the rule needs to be something like ‘You can’t end a sentence with a preposition when it is functioning as a preposition and as the head of a prepositional phrase. You can end a sentence with a preposition in the following three or four or five sentence types: ~’.

    • Stan says:

      I think that’s complicating things unnecessarily. It makes more sense to me to just ignore the rule or say it’s bogus, and work from there.

      • David Morris says:

        I’ll agree that for 100% of practical purposes and 99% of theoretical purposes, it’s unnecessary, but any complete treatment of the issue needs to mention it.
        I was thinking how rarely, if ever, I hear students or my English as a second language speaker wife and her friends end sentences with a preposition (in those majority of sentence patterns where it isn’t allowed). Then several days ago we were in the car when my wife’s phone rang. She said ‘My bag – inside’, which might be a transfer from Korean, which has postpositions.

  11. […] Stan Carey’s Sentence First blog: One of daftest and dustiest old grammar myths is the unfounded rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. (link) […]

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