Use of prepositions in questions



Yesterday one of my classes was practicing wh- questions in past simple (Stretch Starter, Oxford University Press, p 93). The activity involves creating a question for the given answer. The first is provided as an example, and I've filled in the rest:

1A: Where did you go? B: I went to a movie.

2A: (Who did she come with?) B: She came with James.

3A: (How long did they stay [for]?) B: They stayed for a week.

4A: (Where did Jack go [to]? B: Jack went to Allan's house.

5A: (When did you call [me] [*at]?) B: I called you at 9:00.

For 2, about half the students wrote *'Who did she come?', which is ungrammatical, but I couldn't think why, either on the spot yesterday, or now, 24 hours later. In 3 and 4, the preposition is optional (and unnatural for me). In 5, the preposition is ungrammatical.

Huddleston and Pullum (A Student's Guide to English Grammar, p 137-9) don't discuss it, and I can't find it anywhere else. Has anyone got any thoughts about this?


Posted 2016-05-26T10:43:17.087

Reputation: 6 681

1Googling for "the null-prep phenomenon" could be a good starting point. – Damkerng T. – 2016-05-26T11:30:21.890

2Without with, who becomes a direct object, but "come" is not transitive. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2016-05-26T12:59:01.893

1A simple way of thinking about #2 is to ask, what's the statement? "She came with James" - not "She came James." So the question has to reflect that. But then, I agree that the preposition is not strictly necessary for #3, #4, and #5 (but not wrong either*). I think the use of the preposition in #3, #4, and #5 may be a dialect issue: having grown up in New York City, I find it natural to say "Where's the party at?" which drives my wife (raised in Louisiana) absolutely up the wall. – stangdon – 2016-05-26T14:27:37.767



  1. Who did she come?

It is very important to check whether the verb to come is a transitive verb (which doesn't require a preposition) or intransitive verb (which does require a preposition). For example, if you change the interrogative sentence to a declarative one, it will be

She came who.

It doesn't make any sense. It should be

She came with whom.

Therefore, you need the preposition with in the sentence. When "whom" is placed at the beginning as an interrogative pronoun, "who" is more broadly used than "whom".

  1. How long did they stay [for]? Where did Jack go [to]?

You need to understand that "how long" and "where" are interrogative adverbs, not interrogative pronouns. Therefore, you don't need to use the prepositions. The same rule applies to "home" as in

He went home. *He went to home

You don't need to use "to" in the second sentence above as "home" is an adverb. If you replace home with "where", it would be easier to understand how it works.

He went where. Where did he go?

  1. When did you call me?

"When" is an interrogative adverb which doesn't require a preposition.

You need to differentiate interrogative pronouns such as who, which, what, etc. from interrogative adverbs such as how long, when, where, how, etc.

From time to time, you can hear some native English speakers ask "Where are you at?" or "Where are you going to?" The prepositions at and to are not absolutely necessary, however, they could be used. You can read “Where are you now at?” — grammatically correct? and is “Where are you going to?” correct to understand how they work. They are a few exceptions to the rule.


Posted 2016-05-26T10:43:17.087


If I were being pedantic, I'd put the proposition before the wh- word: With whom did she come? For how long did they stay? But I wouldn't use a proposition at all with 1, 4, or 5. – Dan Henderson – 2016-05-26T15:11:59.250

@DanHenderson The issue has been discussed extensively on ELU. When is it appropriate to end a sentence in a preposition?. Of course, you might think putting preposition before wh-words is better, but some might not agree with you. For how long did they stay? is perfectly grammatical and idiomatic, but How long did they stay for? will not be considered as much so.

– None – 2016-05-26T15:20:23.293

Actually, "How long did they stay for?" is fine. In contemporary English, "For how long did they stay?" sounds formal and a little old-fashioned, but is certainly well established in the written tradition.

– Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-26T17:06:21.467

@BenKovitz I didn't say it's not fine. There is no reason to use the preposition and whether to put it before how long or at the end doesn't seem to make such a big difference as it is redundant. "How long will you stay?" "For how long will you stay?" "How long will you stay for"? "How far is it?" "How far is it at?" "At how far is it?" – None – 2016-05-26T17:09:43.757

OK, I guess I misunderstood your comment; I thought you meant that "How long did they stay for?" is grammatical but only in a second-class or dubious way, while "For long long did they stay?" is unquestionably grammatical. By the way, "How far is it at?" and "At how far is it?" are both ungrammatical, or at least very nonstandard. Or was that your point?—sometimes it's hard to be clear in these brief comments. :) – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-26T17:20:28.640

@BenKovitz Sorry if my comments were not clear. This is my understanding. I am not a native speaker, but I hear a lot of people use prepositions before interrogative adverbs or at the end. I think some of them are idiomatic and some of them are not. It is not black and white and there is no hard-and-fast rule about this. I just believe there will be more cases of them in the future as the grammatical rules are loosening up. I used the sentences with "how far" to illustrate some are not idiomatic. – None – 2016-05-26T17:31:51.813