Ending a Sentence with a Preposition: “Where’s he at?”
by Owen Fourie
There are some expressions that set off alarm bells when you hear them.
“Where’s he at?” is one that irked me when I heard it for the first time somewhere in Texas. I thought that it was a case of local dialect, but it is more widespread than that.
Is there any justification for its use?
To answer this question, let’s briefly list what we know about prepositions. We touched on this in one of the articles on phrases.
- A preposition normally should not stand on its own.
- It is a function word that relates to other words, often indicating relationships of space and time.
- Correctly, a preposition is followed by a noun or a pronoun that is the object of the preposition, so you would have on the table, where on is the preposition and table is its object.
To make sense, a preposition needs an object; therefore, if it occurs at the end of a sentence, it is left hanging without its object. It is a hanging preposition.
How to break the rules
Despite this, there are times when it is actually better to have a sentence ending with a preposition than to keep rigidly to the rule and to sound too correct, pedantic, and awkward.
Consider the following questions and statements. In the first part, we keep to the rule: Do not conclude a sentence with a preposition. In the second part, we break this rule. The prepositions are in italics.
Following the rule:
- Into what did you fall?
- The surgeon ably demonstrated the skill for which he was known.
- Tell me from where she came.
- For what are the students waiting?
Breaking the rule:
- What did you fall into?
- The surgeon ably demonstrated the skill he was known for.
- Tell me where she came from.
- What are the students waiting for?
In circumstances such as writing formal academic papers or attending business interviews, it is recommended that you should follow the rule.
Avoid archaic usage, of course! You don’t want to say this:
- Tell me from whence she came.
- Tell me whence she came. (more correct but still archaic)
In other situations, the examples in the second part are acceptable.
Notice this about three of the examples where the rule is broken: If you remove the preposition, the question or statement is incomplete and does not make sense.
- What did you fall?
- The surgeon ably demonstrated the skill he was known.
- What are the students waiting?
This is nonsense, so in these cases, the preposition at the end is necessary.
In the remaining example, you could say, “Tell me where she came.” Imagine not being able to finish watching an athletic event, and you ask a friend to tell you where a certain athlete was placed – second, third, or fourth.
So where are we at?
If the circumstances favor it and sense is made, concluding a statement or a question with a preposition should not be a problem.
However, if the preposition at the end can be removed and the question makes perfect sense, the preposition is obviously redundant. It is unnecessary.
Such is the case with “Where is he at?”
“Where is he?” makes perfect sense without the preposition.
Is at a preposition here? The question “Where is he?” requires the identification of a place–a noun–so the answer could be “at the ice rink.” In this sense, at is playing the part of a preposition in “Where is he at?”
“Where are you going to?”
There is a nursery rhyme that begins with the line “Where are you going, my pretty maid?”
Another version of that first line includes to: “Where are you going to, my pretty maid?”
If you delete to, the meaning of the question does not change, so to is unnecessary, and this is sufficient: “Where are you going?”
If you must have to, using it as an infinitive to complete the question would be good. Consider the following examples with the infinitive italicized in each one:
- Where are you going to milk the cows?
- Where are you going to live?
- Where are you going to sleep?
In formal situations, in speech and in writing, observe the rule and do not use a preposition to conclude a sentence or a question.
In less formal situations, use a concluding preposition only if its omission would reduce what you are saying to nonsense.
If you can avoid using a concluding preposition without changing the meaning of what you are saying, don’t use it. Prefer “Where is he?” to “Where’s he at?”
Dare we let Diana Ross have the last word? Where is she going to? Click here for her song. 🙁 🙂
If you use hanging prepositions as you speak and as you write, what are your favorite expressions? How would you change these statements or questions in formal speaking and writing? If you are not sure about this and would like some confirmation of your correction, ask here. Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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