Student Stumper 54: What is a dangling preposition?

QUESTION: What is a dangling preposition?

ANSWER: My initial reaction to this question posted by a learner was, “Hmm. What is a dangling preposition?” I hadn’t heard of one before, but there’s always a first, and I never assume I know everything about grammar. I wondered if the person was confusing dangling prepositions with dangling participles or modifiers. After all, so many of us have seen the common mistake illustrated hilariously in sentences like, “While walking to my car in the strong wind, my hat blew off.” A cheeky response would be, “Oh really? Does your hat walk fast or slow?” In this case, the subject of the main clause (my hat) must also be the subject of the reduced clause (Who was walking?) in order for the statement to make sense. A more logical variation is: While walking to my car in the strong wind, I lost my hat.

A dangling participle is a grammatical unit hanging out there, and it is not properly anchored to the logical subject. So what might a dangling preposition be? One that is hanging out there and seemingly not anchored to the right object. Aha! This is when the lightbulb went off in my head, and I realized the learner was asking about stranded prepositions. That’s the term I had heard before. PoTAYto, poTAHto. Why can’t all sources use the same terms? I actually know a third name: deferred prepositions. That’s the term Greenbaum and Quirk use. Whatever you wish to call it, we can agree on the patterns and help our learners recognize and use them. “Stranded” and “dangling” suggest an undesirable state, but these deferred prepositions aren’t suffering in any way like a dangling participle. They’re simply separated from the object and break the usual pattern of prepositional phrases (preposition + object).

What are the patterns?
1. We can end questions with prepositions. Placing the preposition before its object (an interrogative pronoun) in a question is more typical of very formal language, and we likely only use such grammar in written English.
a) Who are you talking to? [To whom are you talking? – This is formal, but correct.]
b) What are you talking about? [About what are you talking? – Personally, I find this wording awkward.]

2. We can end relative clauses with prepositions. Again, this variation is typical of everyday English, especially in conversation. According to Greenbaum and Quirk, the preference for a stranded preposition is also connected to the close relationship between the verb and preposition.
a) The house you’re now looking at is over 200 years old. [The house at which you are now looking…]
b) The opportunity I was waiting for never came. [The opportunity for which I was waiting never came.]

3a. Using fronting for emphasis, we can end a sentence with a preposition.
Compare a sentence with fronting to use of the anticipatory “it”:
a) The city’s waste of resources is hard to turn a blind eye to. [It is hard to turn a blind eye to the city’s waste of resources.]
3b. The example above also happens to make use of an infinitive. Both Greenbaum and Quirk and Biber et al. note that using infinitives and gerunds can result in a stranded preposition.
b) It’s something you need to fight for.
c) Some things are worth dying for.
d) We all need someone to talk to.

4. Passive constructions allow stranded prepositions.
a) The scandal has been written about many times.
b) That kind of beauty is stared at.

Can any preposition be deferred? No. Biber et al. note that the commonly stranded prepositions are the simple ones, including but not limited to: at, by, for, in, to, of, on, and with.

Are stranded prepositions only used in conversation? They’re very natural in everyday English in general. Use of traditional prepositional phrases (preposition + object) is what we’re more likely to encounter in written English. Even fragments will follow this pattern. Biber et al. list “For what?” as an example from fiction, whereas “What for?” is language used from conversation.

One final thing we can caution learners against (Notice the stranded preposition there!) is thinking a two-word phrasal verb is an example of a stranded preposition. “Caution against” is a collocation of verb + preposition, but “fall through” is an intransitive phrasal verb (verb + particle): Our plans fell through.

In the end, you can use whatever term helps the concept stick for you and your learners. The key is to understand this pattern, accept it as natural in many contexts, and then practice using it. A great place to start is with common questions. Students can pair off and take turns asking these:
– Where are you from?
– Are you a student? What school do you go to?
– Do you have a wide circle of friends? Who do you spend the most time with? Who do you like to hang out with? (phrasal verb + preposition)
– What kind of music do you listen to?
– Do you follow any sports? What team do you cheer for?

Related post:
Pondering the Placement of Prepositions (2015) – PDF included with three exercises

Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.
Greenbaum S. and Quirk R. (1995). A student’s grammar of the English language. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited.

Image by Debaudh Majee from Pixabay 

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