What is a dangling preposition?
A dangling preposition (also called a hanging preposition or stranded preposition) refers to a preposition whose object occurs earlier in the sentence, or else does not have an object in the sentence at all. It is left “dangling,” “hanging,” or “stranded” because it does not form a complete prepositional phrase.
Despite what you may have been taught, it’s a myth that ending a sentence or clause with a preposition is an error. We’ll discuss that myth—and its origin—later in the article.
Encountering dangling prepositions
Remember that a preposition expresses a relationship (as of time, space, distance, causation, etc.) between a noun or pronoun (the object of the preposition) and another element in the sentence.
Dangling prepositions generally occur with prepositional verbs or phrasal verbs. These are verb constructions that require prepositions to complete their meaning. For example, you don’t talk someone, you talk to someone. Similarly, hearing something (with one’s ears) is different to hearing about something (on the news, for instance). In both cases, the prepositions complete or alter the unique meaning of the verbs.
Dangling prepositions occur when verb constructions like these are used at the end of a sentence or clause but the objects of the prepositions appear earlier in the sentence. Generally speaking, there are four types of syntactic constructions in which this happens:
We will look at examples of dangling prepositions occurring in each type of construction. It’s important to note that all of the examples we’ll examine are grammatically correct.
Questions beginning with wh- words
We often encounter dangling prepositions when a wh- word (such as who or what) is used to begin a question. This is because the question word itself is functioning as the object of the preposition but is placed at the very beginning of the sentence (due to the common construction of interrogative sentences). For example:
- “Whose house are you staying in?” (In is the dangling preposition of the object whose.)
- “What are you talking about?” (About is the dangling preposition of the object what.)
- “Who/whom* will we go with?” (With is the dangling preposition of the object who/whom.*)
- “Where did they come from?” (From is the dangling preposition of the object where.)
(*Whom is considered the correct form to use whenever it functions as an object of a verb or preposition. However, because whom is falling into disuse in modern English, it is very often replaced by who, especially when it is the object of a dangling preposition.)
Infinitives (the base form of the verb preceded by the particle to) and the phrases they form can function as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs in a sentence.
When they function as adjectives, infinitives come immediately after the noun they modify. For the infinitives of prepositional or phrasal verbs, the preposition is left without an object and becomes stranded. For example:
- “Don’t worry, sweetie, there is nothing to be scared of!”
- “Each student will be asked to give a brief presentation tomorrow, so make sure you have something to talk about.”
- “I just bought some new music to listen to.”
- “He wished he had a friend to travel with.”
Passive voice constructions
The passive voice is a type of grammatical voice in which the subject is acted upon by the verb. In passive-voice sentences, the subject is the receiver of the action (i.e., what would be the direct object in an active-voice sentence). Because the direct object of a phrasal or prepositional verb is shifted to the position of the subject in such passive-voice constructions, the preposition will be left dangling at the end of the clause.
- “I wonder who/whom this book was written by.” (By is the dangling preposition of the object who/whom.)
- “The problem is being dealt with.” (With is the dangling preposition of the object the problem.)
- “These expenses still haven’t been accounted for.” (For is the dangling preposition of the object expenses.)
- “Many social taboos have been broken down by activists over the years.” (Down is the dangling preposition of the object social taboos.)
Relative clauses, which are introduced by relative pronouns, function adjectivally to describe or modify a noun or noun phrase within a sentence. In certain cases, relative pronouns can be used as objects of prepositions, meaning the relative pronoun works in conjunction with a preposition to modify the subject or verb of the relative clause.
Conventionally, only whose, which, and whom can function as objects of prepositions when the preposition precedes the pronoun, as in:
- “I learned everything I know from my brother, to whom I owe a great deal.”
- “The family in whose house we’re staying has been very kind to us.”
- “There are many things in my life for which I am very grateful.”
However, these are formal constructions; in modern, informal English, it’s much more common to strand the preposition at the end of the relative clause. When this happens, whom is usually changed to who or omitted altogether (but only if the relative clause is restrictive, meaning it is essential to the meaning of the sentence). Likewise, in restrictive relative clauses, which is often changed to that or omitted. Whose, which denotes possession, cannot be changed or omitted.
Let’s look at the same examples again, this time using dangling prepositions to create more natural-sounding sentences:
- “I learned everything I know from my brother, who/whom I owe a great deal to.” (To is the dangling preposition of the object who or, less commonly, whom.)
- “The family whose house we’re staying in has been very kind to us.” (In is the dangling preposition of the object whose)
- “There are many things in my life that/which I am very grateful for.” (For is the dangling preposition of the object that/which.)
As we noted earlier, we can also omit the relative pronoun in the last example because the relative clause is restrictive. This is the most casual way to write the sentence:
- “There are many things in my life I am very grateful for.”
Let’s look at a few other examples of relative clauses that use dangling prepositions:
- “The professor [who/whom] I studied under retired this year.” (Under is the dangling preposition of who or, less commonly, whom; because the relative clause is restrictive, the relative pronoun can also be omitted.)
- “Janet aced her last test, which she’d studied extensively for.” (For is the dangling preposition of which; because the relative clause is non-restrictive, we cannot substitute that or omit the pronoun.)
- “I had a great discussion with Mr. Johnson, whose daughter I’m studying math with.” (With is the dangling preposition of whose, which cannot be changed or omitted no matter which type of relative clause it is used in.)
Ending a sentence with a preposition
There has been a prevailing myth among English grammar teachers that prepositions should never be split from their objects, and that it is always incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition.
This “rule” is based on the fact that in Latin (from which English derives some of its structure), prepositions can’t be stranded from their objects. However, this is decidedly not the case in English, and nearly every grammar guide (including this one) agrees that it is acceptable and often more correct to end a sentence with a dangling preposition, rather than rewriting a sentence specifically to avoid it.
Rewriting sentences with dangling prepositions
In order to rewrite sentences to avoid dangling prepositions, we have to move the preposition to an earlier part of the sentence before its object. If the dangling preposition doesn’t have an object, we also have to add a pronoun (usually which) to fulfil this role.
The problem with rewriting sentences in this way is that it often yields very awkward, overly formal sentences that would rarely (if ever) be found in natural speech or writing. There is a famous example of such a construction that is commonly (though incorrectly) attributed to Winston Churchill:
- “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!”
Regardless of the authenticity of this quotation, it nevertheless highlights how arduous and awkward (and unnecessary) it can be to rewrite a sentence to avoid a dangling preposition. Let’s take a few of the examples we looked at earlier and see how rewriting them to avoid dangling prepositions results in undesirable sentences:
- “Where did they come from?”
- “From where did they come?”
- “I had a great discussion with Mr. Johnson, whose daughter I’m studying math with.”
- “I had a great discussion with Mr. Johnson, with whose daughter I’m studying math.”
- “Don’t worry, sweetie, there is nothing to be scared of!”
- “Don’t worry sweetie, there is nothing of which to be scared!” (In this case, we have to add the relative pronoun which to function as the object of the preposition of.)
While technically correct, each of these rewritten sentences is stilted and overly formal. Longer, more complex sentences can make use of these types of constructions more naturally, but for simpler sentences in everyday speech and writing, reorganizing prepositions is simply not necessary.
Changing passive voice to active voice
Passive constructions that use dangling prepositions can sometimes be rewritten in the active voice to avoid dangling prepositions. Unlike the changes we looked at above, changing sentences from the passive to the active voice is much less likely to sound awkward or overly formal. For example:
- “I wonder who this book was written by.” (passive construction with dangling preposition)
- “I wonder who wrote this book.” (rewritten in the active voice)
- “The problem is being dealt with.” (passive construction with dangling preposition)
- “We are dealing with with the problem.” (rewritten in the active voice)
These rewritten sentences all sound perfectly natural in modern English. However, by shifting to the active voice, we lose the emphasis on the fact that the agent of the action is unknown or unspecified. Sometimes this is for the best—many guides recommend avoiding the passive voice wherever possible, preferring for the action of the sentence to be direct and the subject of the action to be clear—but it is not necessary to rewrite such sentences simply to avoid the use of dangling prepositions.
Avoiding unnecessary prepositions
While it is perfectly correct to end a sentence with a preposition, we must be careful that we do not include extraneous prepositions that do not serve a grammatical function. For example, the following sentence features a very common error:
- “Where are you at?”
This is incorrect—not because the preposition ends the sentence, but because the preposition does not need to be in the sentence at all. It should read:
- “Where are you?”
As we can see, the preposition at added no additional or necessary information to the sentence, so it should be removed altogether.
Let’s look at another example with an unnecessary preposition:
- “I’m looking for somewhere to store my luggage in.”
Again, the preposition in actually serves no purpose here, so it can be omitted:
- “I’m looking for somewhere to store my luggage.”
Such prepositional errors are not confined to sentences ending with prepositions; we should avoid using extraneous prepositions no matter where they occur in a sentence.
A final note
Despite the fact that ending a sentence with a preposition is grammatically correct in English, the myth that it is wrong is still very prevalent among native speakers and learners alike. Just be aware that some people might judge your writing as incorrect if you use prepositions at the end of sentences (or do so too often).
Therefore, in more formal or professional writing in which one’s grammar needs to be seen as very correct (such as a business proposal or academic application), try to avoid ending sentences in dangling prepositions if they can be reworded or rewritten. In addition to avoiding criticism or judgment from your reader, it can add elegance and sophistication to your writing to use sentences that avoid dangling prepositions, so long as they still sound natural and coherent.
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