Formally speaking, the preposition is normally placed before its object:

About what were you talking?

Being "what" the indefinite object of that preposition, which could be replaced by any other noun.

Said so, would this arrangement be correct:

I'm worried about¹ about² what he talked ?

Where: the first "about" is the complement of the adjective "worried", and the second "about" is the particle of the phrasal verb "talk about" which was placed in front of its indefinite object "what"

That sentence would usually be arranged in the following way:

I'm worried about what he talked about


1 Answer 1


The short answer is no.

BOTH example sentences you cite require a dangling preposition. In other words, the preposition "about" in these two sentences has to go at the end, there is no other correct construction:

What were you talking about?

I'm worried about what he talked about.

The longer answer:

While it's true that prepositions usually have to precede their object, there are several cases when they have to be placed at the end of their sentence/clause/etc.

1. In Interrogative sentences, such as your first example:

What were you talking about?

2. With a dependent clause, such as in your second example:

I'm worried about what he talked about."

"What he talked about" is the dependent clause here.

Other examples, with the dependent clause in brackets:

RIGHT: The subject [that he talked about] worries me.

WRONG: The subject [about that he talked] worries me.

RIGHT: [What he talked about] worries me.

WRONG: [About what he talked] worries me.

RIGHT: I was worried [until what he had talked about] happened.

WRONG: I was worried [until about what he had talked] happened.

3. With the object of a passive verb:

He was talked about at work.

The even longer answer:

The reasoning for 1 and 2 above is pretty straightforward. In the first case, we want to begin with an interrogative word, to signal right away that it is a question. "About" obviously doesn't fit the bill. In the second case, having several prepositions in a row is awkward and it's quite an effort to sort out which belongs to what object.

To give a little insight into what's happening in the third case, I'll use the same sentence:

He was talked about at work.

Note that even though the word "he" is the object here (and would normally be "him"), it is being treated like the subject because the actual subject of a passive verb is, by definition, unspecified. So "he" is placed at the beginning of the sentence and written in the nominative case ("he") instead of the oblique ("him"), to make it seem as if the verb "talked" has a subject. This leaves the preposition stranded in the place where the object of that verb would normally be. But that works out perfectly, because now, to help avoid confusion, we have a word ("he") as a "placeholder" for the subject and a word ("about") as a "placeholder" for the object.

For more information, here is the Wikipedia article about this rule: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preposition_stranding#In_English

And here is a paper that explains where some of the prejudice against dangling prepositions comes from: http://www.let.leidenuniv.nl/hsl_shl/preposition%20stranding.htm

  • Hey, fill. I have seen some PDF from linguistics such as Tesnière who would, indeed, write such sentences as: About whom were you talking? And, in my second example, "I'm worried about what he talked about.", it's not a relative clause at all; it's a noun clause acting as the adjective complement of the adjective worried, a relative clause would be describing a noun: I'm worried about the guy whom I like.
    – Davyd
    Sep 6, 2017 at 22:15
  • @Haseo, thank you so much for the correction regarding the relative clause, that was my mistake. I should have written "dependent clause". The rule applies to any type of dependent clause. I added examples with various types of dependent clauses, to avoid confusion. Regarding your quote from Tesnière--is that the one who died in the 1950s? I'm not sure why he used "about" the way he does, but his use of "whom" in that sentence is definitely archaic. Modern English would use "who". Have you seen this use documented by contemporary linguists, or in contemporary speech? Sep 7, 2017 at 0:53
  • @HotLicks, YOU LITERALLY JUST DID THAT in your comment. What does your sentence end WITH? How would you rephrase your comment to conform to your own grammar rule?? Sep 7, 2017 at 0:57
  • 1
    About what were you talking?
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 7, 2017 at 1:01
  • 2
    @filistinist - I think that was a irony, that's why he emphasized the first words.
    – Davyd
    Sep 7, 2017 at 1:01

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