There is a certain type of language enthusiast who, at the mention of English grammar, will jump to reassure you that they would never, ever dream of ending a sentence with a preposition. While their ardor for linguistic correctness is admirable, in this case I find it a little misplaced.
Well, when it comes to English, it there are two main types of grammar rules: those that came about in order to improve clarity and facilitate comprehension; and those that developed somewhat arbitrarily, more from convention than from logic. Things like period and comma usage are good examples of the former. In contrast, the infamous “don’t end a sentence preposition” rule is a stellar example of the latter.
By way of explanation, let’s start with the fact that English is essentially a hybrid language — half Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) and half Latin, courtesy of the eleventh-century Norman invasions of England.
As a result, modern English has evolved to have some similarities to German, mostly involving vocabulary but occasionally involving other things as well. For example, compare the English I have the book to the German Ich habe das buch. The relationship is pretty clear.
However, in many regards, English also resembles modern-day Romance languages such as French and Spanish. For instance, most nouns that end in -ion or -ment in English are identical to their French counterparts and almost identical to their Spanish (-cion, -mente) and Italian (-zione, -mente) ones.
For the most part, English syntax (word order) is more or less the same as that of the Romance languages, but it does have a few quirks left over from its Germanic roots. One of these quirks involves prepositions.
I’m going to simplify a little here, but this is the gist. German, like English, is filled with phrasal verbs: verbs composed of a verb + preposition, e.g. go up, strike out, wander off.
It is also filled with “separable” verbs — verbs that are composed of a preposition + infinitive. For example, aussehen, which means “to appear,” is composed of the preposition aus (out) and the infinitive sehen (to see). These two elements are often separated, with the preposition being placed at the end of the sentence. E.g. Er sieht gut aus = He looks good.
When using these types of verbs in German, it is perfectly acceptable — indeed, necessary — to end a sentence with a preposition. So if English is considered in context of its German roots, then the prohibition against placing a preposition at the end of a sentence simply makes no sense.
In English, it is of course possible to arrange constructions so that the preposition does not fall at the end, but the result is often awkward and unwieldy.
No one, for example, would say, This is the book about which I was talking — that is, unless they were going far out of their way to show off their staunch refusal to end a sentence with a preposition. But frankly, that would sound pretty bizarre. This is the book I was talking about sounds much better because the structure of that statement is inherited from German, a language in which that type of construction is natural.
So, why insist on contorting English in ways it was never intended to be twisted?
Well, you can blame it on Latin.
In Latin, the language in which most serious education in England historically took place, it is impossible to end a sentence with a preposition — the language simply does not allow for that construction (as is the case for all of the Romance languages).
In the seventeenth century, when English authors began attempting to elevate their vernacular to the status of Latin, the poet John Dryden (among others) reputedly proclaimed that because ending a sentence with a preposition was not done in Latin, it should not be done in English either. The prohibition caught on and established itself among pedagogues.
Incidentally, the “no split infinitives” rule evolved out of the same desire to fit English into a classical linguistic straitjacket: because Latin verbs consist of only one word and cannot be divided by a modifier, logic dictated that English verbs should never be cleaved in that manner (e.g. to boldly go).
There are still some purists who adhere strictly to these proscriptions, although granted there are probably far fewer of them than there were a generation or two ago. (And in case you’re wondering, neither of them is tested on the SAT or ACT — matters of usage this subject to debate are off-limits.) But for me at least, this type of adherence is based on a misguided understanding of what English is and of how it developed. It promotes the idea that grammar is a matter of applying a rigid and arbitrary set of rules, ones detached from logic or from how language actually works.
And I hope that’s a bandwagon on which few people would be willing to jump.