Putting up with Prepositions

“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

There’s something immediately funny about the sentence above. It sounds stuffy, pompous, maybe even absurd. And even though it is often attributed to Winston Churchill, he never actually said it. This quotation is from a 1942 story in The Strand Magazine and was first attributed to Churchill in a 1948 book.

churchill

But even though Churchill never said it, we can still use it to talk about today’s topic, which is prepositions—more specifically, preposition placement. What is a preposition? The simplest explanation is that prepositions are words or phrases that show relationships between other words. Consider words like “under” or “with” or “to.” These words are generally meaningless by themselves. We need to follow them with a noun, and sometimes with other additional words, in order to get any meaning out of them. “Under the bed,” “with gusto,” and “to Grandma’s house” all have meaning. The noun that follows a preposition is called the object of the preposition, and these combinations of preposition + noun are called prepositional phrases.

Prepositions Prepositional Phrases
under under the bed
with with gusto
to to Grandma’s house

the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, dressed as a grandmother

If you want additional examples, you can click here for a more in-depth look at prepositions, including some common uses that confuse people. You can also click here for a full list of English prepositions.

Now that we’ve looked at prepositions in general, let’s get back to our example sentence, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” Can you pinpoint what’s so weird about it? If you said that the sentence seemed out of order, you’re right. The more normal order would be “This is the sort of English that I will not put up with.” But wait—there’s something wrong with this version, too! We just talked about how prepositions are followed by nouns, but there are two of them (“up” and “with”) at the very end of this sentence. What on earth is going on?

“This is the sort of English that I will not put up with.”

What’s going on here is that the same words that act like prepositions can also function in other ways. In this case, “put up with” is a phrasal verb, meaning that the words “up with” are part of the verb, and removing them changes the meaning of the verb. We can easily see that this is the case by trying to remove them from the sentence entirely:

“This is the sort of English that I will not put.”

The sentence means something totally different now, because “put” and “put up with” are different verbs. When prepositions are attached to verbs like this, they are called particles. (To learn more about the different types of phrasal verbs, click here. For a list of common phrasal verbs, click here.)

You may recall learning, at some point, that you should never end a sentence with a preposition (the official term is prepositional stranding, because you are “stranding” a preposition at the end of a clause without an object to follow it). This rule against ending sentences with prepositions, created by John Dryden in 1672, has no basis in fact and is largely rejected by modern linguists and grammarians. However, this “rule” still stubbornly clings on in some places, and there are even some times when there is a grain of truth to it. Let’s look at some different cases now and see when the rule is worth following.

  1. “Where are you at?”

Two teenage girls standing in a field, each using a rotary telephone

You have probably heard many variations of this question in everyday speech. It is quite common, but it is also one of the few examples of the rule against prepositions at the end of sentences being entirely correct. In the case of “Where are you at?” the preposition “at” adds no meaning to the sentence. We can safely leave it out and get a shorter sentence with the same meaning and no preposition at the end: “Where are you?” is a completely standard, grammatical sentence. “Where are you at?” is not. Although “Where are you at?” is acceptable on informal occasions in certain dialects of English, it is not considered Standard English and is never acceptable in formal or semi-formal written English (for a discussion of how it crept into the language, click here).

  1. “Where are you from?”

This sentence demonstrates the other extreme from the previous example. The “from” contributes essential information to the sentence and cannot be removed. If we remove the “from” we end up with “Where are you?” again, but “Where are you from?” is asking for information about origin, not about current location. “To be from” (there’s another of our phrasal verbs!) is not the same verb as “to be.” The other possible ways to ask this question almost all use the phrasal verb “come from,” leaving the same particle, “from,” at the end of the sentence:

“Where do you come from?”

“What country do you come from?”

The rearranged no-preposition-at-the-end versions of these sentences sound nearly as ridiculous as our fake Winston Churchill quote:

“From where are you?” (not even a correct sentence)

“From where do you come?”

“From what country do you come?”

While it is possible to rewrite the sentence and avoid both the “from” at the end and the awkward-sounding “from” at the beginning, “What is your country of origin?” sounds incredibly formal and cold, whereas “Where do you come from?” or “Where are you from?” are more commonly used.

In this case, context is everything. “Where are you from?” is an icebreaker question (especially while you’re traveling)—part of an informal getting-to-know-you conversation. This phrasing is acceptable and idiomatic in spoken English. Because you would never need to write “Where are you from?” in a formal document except as a transcription of speech, there is no need to worry about offending preposition sticklers with it.

Similar informally acceptable sentences that end with phrasal verbs include the following:

“I don’t want to wake up.”

“My aunt and uncle might come by.”

“If you don’t know a word, look it up.”

  1. “Dr. Cox is the professor who I have had the most classes with.”

a cartoon penguin holding books

This example is another demonstration of the importance of context. Unlike the question in Sentence 2, this sentence about Dr. Cox could potentially appear in a piece of formal speech or writing. In informal speech or writing, Sentence 3 is perfectly acceptable. In formal speech or writing, however, it is not acceptable, because the “with” is not part of a phrasal verb. It is a stranded preposition that can be moved without changing meaning or creating awkwardness.

The correct formal version of this sentence is

“Dr. Cox is the professor with whom I have had the most classes.”

Sentences that use “whom” or “which” as the object of a preposition often feel very formal precisely because the informal version of the sentence usually uses “who” or “that” and ends with the preposition. Here’s another example:

“I like TV shows that I can learn from.”

The formal version of this sentence would be

“I like television shows from which I can learn.”

But the average native English speaker would probably use the first version almost 100% of the time unless he or she was writing a formal paper.

  1. “The company had a major problem to sort out.”

Here is yet another phrasal verb: “sort out” and “sort” have different meanings. But in this case, the problem is not that the sentence ends with a preposition. The problem is that “sort out,” like many phrasal verbs, is informal. The easy alternative to the phrasal verb “sort out” is the verb “resolve,” which means something very similar but is more formal:

“The company had a major problem to resolve.”

Replacing informal phrasal verbs with single-word equivalents has the additional benefit of reducing wordiness. Here are some other examples of informal phrasal verbs and formal single-word replacements:

Phrasal Verb Formal Equivalent
show up arrive
get by survive
look up to respect, admire
walk out on abandon

(You can find more examples here and here.)

So, what can you take away from this lesson?

  • In informal speech or writing, avoid “Where are you at?” Otherwise, don’t worry about ending sentences with prepositions. It doesn’t matter, especially if you’re ending with a phrasal verb like “to come from” or “to look up.”
  • If you’re writing or speaking formally,
    • try replacing informal phrasal verbs with more formal single-word verbs.
    • move prepositions in front of the “whom” or “which” that is their object. You may need to change a “who” to a “whom,” change a “that” to a “which,” or insert a “which” when a “that” is absent but implied.

Picture of a bell tower with overlay text: Ask not who the bell tolls for. Ask for whom the bell tolls.

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