As It Happens

Why Merriam-Webster says it's OK to end a sentence in a preposition

In a post on Instagram last week, Merriam-Webster has found itself dividing commenters by asserting that it is permissible for a sentence to end in a preposition. Peter Sokolowski from Merriam-Webster weighs in to the debate.

Dictionary editor says it's 'perfectly organic and natural,' and linguists agree

The page of a Dictionary, with its definition.
The dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster says it's OK to end a sentence with a preposition. (FabrikaSimf/Shutterstock)

Dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster found itself in hot water recently after weighing in on an age-old grammatical debate.

In an Instagram post, Merriam-Webster said it is "permissible" for people speaking English to end sentences with prepositions, and there is "no reason" to assume this is wrong.

The assertion seemed to touch a nerve with the dictionary's followers, leaving many divided on the issue in the comments section.

For a lot of people, ending a sentence with a preposition — connecting words such as "to," "with" or "of" — seems grammatically improper. But Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski says using prepositions this way is part and parcel of using the English language. 

"It's organic and it's natural," Sokolowski told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "There are phrases such as, 'This is the first radio show I ever heard of,' or, 'A friend I went to college with,' or 'What is it made out of?' ....Those are perfectly organic and natural ways to pose those questions."

When we describe English as it is natural and organic, this is part of the language.- Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster editor

Sokolowski admits that there are times when ending a sentence with a preposition — while not technically incorrect — may seem jarring.

"Context always matters," he said. "It's true that because this is one of those superstitions or myths or bugaboos that people have, that if it draws attention to your writing in a way that distracts from your message, then maybe you would avoid it."

But, if this supposed grammatical rule is a superstition, then where did it come from?

Sokolowski says it dates back to the 1500s and 1600s, when Latin was considered "the highest standard" of language.

"There was an effort to emulate the elegance of expression of Latin.... that's why these so-called rules have been perpetuated through the centuries," he said. 

"It wasn't until really the 20th century that we had a real science of linguistics that analyzed the language and said, 'You know, when we describe English as it is, natural and organic, this is part of the language.'"

A man wearing a black sweater and a tie looks into a camera lens. Behind him is a bookshelf stacked with books.
Peter Sokolowski is the editor at Merriam-Webster. (Submitted by Peter Sokolowski)


Dave Kush, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, says the rule around ending sentences with prepositions is part of differentiating people according to culture and class. 

"I suspect that it's turned into an issue because it's a way of sorting people based on class or education," Kush said.

"There are people who want to be seen as literate and educated, and who like to police people's language ... It's in their business to convince people that they are the mavens or they are the keepers of the true educated language."

Kush says that, rather than dividing people, using prepositions at the end of sentences indicates commonality between different peoples.

"Actually English, and a few other Scandinavian languages, are some of the few languages that allow this phenomenon," he said.

"It's a nice little quirk that we share with the Scandinavian languages like Norwegian and Swedish and Danish and, in those languages, it's absolutely the norm."

Despite the spat, Sokolowski said that Merriam-Webster's active online presence fosters a community of eager language enthusiasts.

"[It] just means people love sharing information about language, history, etymology and pronunciation," he said. 

"So much unites language lovers."

Interview with Peter Sokolowski produced by Chris Trowbridge

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