As I'm not an English speaker, whenever I encounter "Preposition + Relative Pronoun" forms in the books, newspaper, etc., it is not that easy for me to understand right away.

... it will gain strength and so become a serious tool and take its place among the means with which you will be bound to create your art. -From 'Letters to a young poet'

  1. If you just put prepositions at the end of sentence, then prepositions should be easier to understand for me. Why does English change the order?

  2. I tried to understand why English makes sentences like that complicated but I cannot find any clues.

  1. One of my friends, who living in UK, told me that there are some sentences in which I have to put prepositions before the relative pronoun. For example, "The situation in which". Could you please let me know what other things there are?

The situation in which Rilke wrote the first Duino Elegy is again instructive.

  1. Lastly, just for normal conversation, for example meeting up your friends, do you use that kind of sentence?
  • 4
    Your friend is wrong. “The situation that Rilke wrote the first Duino Elegy in” is perfectly grammatical, and (at least to me) much more likely to actually be used in normal speech. Also, the point of using prep + rel.pron. is often to make the sentence less complex. Sometimes, the preposition can end up being very far away from its object, which can sound clumsy and overly complex. Moving them together at the start of the clause makes it easier to parse (sometimes). Apr 4, 2015 at 9:55
  • 3
    ...“The situation that Rilke wrote the first Duino Elegy in” may be 'perfectly grammatical' but sounds off to my native ear, as it is clumsy and possibly mixes registers. “The situation Rilke was in when he wrote the first Duino Elegy” is colloquial; “The situation in which Rilke was living when he wrote the first Duino Elegy" is formal. Apr 4, 2015 at 11:08
  • Where? Where exactly?
    – Kris
    Apr 4, 2015 at 13:49

3 Answers 3


Shoe has already answered. Here is some additional information that may or may not clarify things further.

The first important thing to understand is that the relative pronoun is part of the relative clause, not of the main clause. Recently, even some native English speakers seem to be getting confused about this, as some weird new practices around who/whom show.

Let's look at some examples around the main clause "The man is here." I will put the relative clauses in bold face.

  • The man who wrote the message is here.
  • The man whom I wrote the message is here. [questionable example; see below]
  • The man to whom I wrote the message is here.
  • The man whom I wrote the message to is here.

We can see that in all examples the relative clause immediately follows the part of speech (here the noun man) which it defines or explains; the remainder of the main clause follows after the end of the relative clause. This is not absolutely necessary, but it's the normal order. (One could also say "The man is here who wrote the message", but that's unusual.)

Next we see that in all examples the relative pronoun (in this case who[m]) begins the relative clause, possibly together with a preposition. This can be explained as one of the few remnants that English has from the original proto-Germanic word order: Word order was generally very free, and the sentence started with the semantically most important part of speech. In a relative clause that's the relative pronoun -- where applicable with its preposition. (It's a general phenomenon in Germanic languages that the word order in subordinate clauses is more conservative than that in declarative main clauses.) As a special feature of English, the preposition can optionally be separated and 'stranded' at the end of the sentence (or here: of the relative clause) as in the last example.

If we replace who/whom by he/him and write all the relative clauses as if they were main clauses, we get declarative main clauses with an unusual (almost obsolete) word order that puts enormous stress on [to] him. The only exception is the first example, where the word order happens to be the normal one because it's the subject that needs stressing.

  • He wrote the message.
  • Him I wrote the message.
  • To him I wrote the message.
  • Him I wrote the message to.

Preposition stranding is a normal but optional and somewhat controversial feature of English. (Controversial among native speakers, that is. Non-native speakers get drills in preposition stranding so they can apply it properly.) I can see two problems with it. 1. It defers the information about the precise role of the relative pronoun in the relative clause to the very end of the relative clause. 2. There are transitions between prepositions and case markings. In fact, English to and of, just like French de and à, have developed to a stage where they can be considered as case markers. (Most case markers in European languages were once postpositions and therefore turned into endings. But prefixes marking case aren't unheard-of, either.) Seen this way, preposition stranding (in case of to or of) separates a relative pronoun from its case marker. That's like separating the -m from whom and 'stranding' it at the end of the sentence.

  • 1
    "the man whom I wrote the message"??? Don't you need to somewhere in that sentences? Otherwise I think it's ungrammatical. Apr 4, 2015 at 12:15
  • 1
    I just double checked with Wiktionary, and it appears that the construction "I wrote the man a message" has already disappeared in British English. But it still exists in American English. I wonder if this is in part due to the influence of German speakers.
    – user86291
    Apr 4, 2015 at 12:27
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    'I wrote him a message / note / letter ...' is fine on both sides of the Atlantic. 'The man whom I wrote a message' has never been acceptable in my opinion. Apr 4, 2015 at 13:37
  • 1
    Actually, I think you are right. Though 'never' may be overstating it a bit; I am sure it was once normal.
    – user86291
    Apr 4, 2015 at 18:12
  • 2
    @Araucaria: To my surprise I immediately found a fantastic map giving an overview of the situation in languages around the world. I have added it to my answer. It already classifies the situation in French as à and de being prepositional clitics (an intermediate stage between prepositions and prefixes), and similarly for Hebrew and Arabic. Languages with proper case prefixes according to the map include Berber, Zulu, Xhosa.
    – user86291
    Oct 29, 2015 at 17:30

You are starting from a false premise if you believe that there is a position where the preposition "is supposed to be", particularly if you think that the correct position is "at the end of the sentence" (called preposition stranding). Indeed, there are some people who regard this as an error.

In fact, the position of the pronoun in relative constructions is influenced by the formality of the context. Certainly, the first of the following sentences (in which the preposition is pied-piped) is more common in a formal written context, whereas the second (with its omission of the relative pronoun) is more common in an informal context:

This is the document to which I was referring.

This is the document I was referring to.

The position of the preposition may also be influenced by the length of the relative clause. Take, for example, your own sentence:

One of my friends, who [is] living in UK, told me that there are some sentences which I have to put prepositions before relative pronoun.

which is in fact missing the preposition in. Putting in at the end results in a sentence that could be more difficult to parse or considered infelicitous.

One of my friends, who [is] living in UK, told me that there are some sentences which I have to put prepositions before relative pronouns in.

So, in summary, the position of the preposition is influenced by the formality of the context and the speaker's or writer's intuition about the comprehensibility and felicitousness of the construction.

  • @Janus, thanks. Do you know if there is an ELU policy on correcting OP's sentences in the answer?
    – Shoe
    Apr 4, 2015 at 10:38
  • No policy as such that I’m aware of, no—but I’d say it’s quite common to (silently or otherwise) fix grammatical errors in example sentences, just so the asker doesn’t think something that is incorrect is correct. (Truth be told, I didn’t even notice the missing verb when I read the question—I only saw it when I read your answer.) Apr 4, 2015 at 10:43

First of all, do you have any issues with

The means with which you can create your art are available to you.

or with:

The means which you can create your art with are available to you.


They are both available.

Also available is this pair:

The means with which to create your art are available to you.

The means which to create your art with are available to you.

E.g. you can find at Google Books:

Concepts of Personality- Page 102 Joseph M. Wepman, ‎Ralph W. Heine - 2008

When this end can be achieved, the person has resources with which to create new and satisfying conceptual structures.

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