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German native here.

As I understand it, the rule that sentences or phrases should never end with a preposion is an over-simplification (similar to the "ban" on split infinitives, which actually can be a great stylistic device).

I've stumbled across the following phrase, used as a header for the mission statement on a company's website:

In what we believe

For some reason, putting the preposition at the end sounds better to my ears:

What we believe in

Two possibilities:

a) I'm right and the first version results from blindly trying to adhere to the "rule".

b) This is hyper-correction on my part: Since the German equivalent would lead with the preposition ("An was wir glauben"), I'm subconsciously interpreting the leading preposition as unnatural in English here.

I'd be grateful for some English native speakers' input.

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    That "rule" never existed in actual English, so better forget about it. – oerkelens Dec 4 '17 at 11:32
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    In what we believe is a prime example of hypercorrection. It sounds horrible to me. In which we believe would be fine English (although not in a header as a replacement for what we believe in). But replacing which by what is ungrammatical. – Peter Shor Dec 4 '17 at 14:04
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    'What we believe in' places final emphasis on that which is believed. 'In what we believe' places final emphasis on the act of believing. Both are valid, semantically and grammatically. – Nigel J Dec 4 '17 at 16:05
  • @oerlikens That "rule" actually existed in actual English teaching, so better to remember it as a historical perversion. – Edwin Ashworth May 14 at 10:56
  • 'In what we believe' correctly sees 'What we believe in' as far too banal to be used as a slogan, too ordinary-sounding for a mission statement header. But it deliberately echoes 'In Whom We Trust' and 'In Which We Serve'. And falls flat. – Edwin Ashworth May 14 at 11:02
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As I understand it, the rule that sentences or phrases should never end with a preposion is an over-simplification

a) I'm right and the first version results from blindly trying to adhere to the "rule".

It would be more correct to call it a guideline instead of a rule. It's a matter of preference, and what sounds best.

For example, "In God we trust" sounds much more official than "We trust in God". Both options are grammatically valid, but they carry a slightly different tone (in regards to in/formality).

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  • We trust in God doesn't end with a preposition. – Peter Shor Dec 4 '17 at 13:52
  • @PeterShor: Indeed. But it is a valid example to my assertion ("It's a matter of preference, and what sounds best."), since it shifts the location of the preposition without altering the grammatical correctness. – Flater Dec 4 '17 at 13:57
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    Also, including glauben in the Ngram is really important so as not to get false positives. Was wir an is almost always followed by a noun, which is a quite different construction. In Google books, an was wir glauben gets seven pages of results, while was wir an glauben gets one page. – Peter Shor Dec 4 '17 at 14:00
  • Thanks for going to the trouble of checking Ngram! Unfortunately, German grammar is leading you a merry dance there: a) "was wir an glauben" is ungrammatical -> thus no hits b) "was wir an" will probably generate a lot of hits unrelated to the construciton in question due to the fact that it's also a possible start to a relative clause (along the lines of "..., which we [verb] to...") So I'm afraid Ngram isn't working for this ... :( – Mac Dec 4 '17 at 14:57
  • @Mac: I'll delete that part of the answer then. – Flater Dec 4 '17 at 15:03
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"What" means "that which". "In what we believe" is wrong because it means "In that which we believe", where the "in" is in front of the wrong word. We want to say we "believe in things", not "believe things". Therefore the "in" should be in front of "which", and this gives the construction the writer is feeling his way towards:

"That in which we believe".

That corrects the grammar, but now the style would be rather laughable in a mission statement. We can improve things somewhat by using a synonym of "that", such as "the things":

"The things in which we believe".

That is still grammatically correct, but "things" will not go down well. Replace "things" with any other suitable noun that people believe in, perhaps "the principles". Thus

"The principles in which we believe".

These are all correct but still starchy for a mission statement. My recommendation is in fact to use a colon at the end, thus:

"We believe in:"

Then put a bulleted list of the things you believe in. That way, "in" is not at the end of a sentence, and not even an unnecessarily worried grammarphobe need fear being accused of poor grammar.

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  • Hello, Stephen. 'In what we believe' is as 'correct' as 'In Whom We Trust' and 'In Which We Serve'; titles, headers etc don't need to be full sentences or clauses (or even adhere at all strongly to most rules of grammar). But I believe 'In what we believe' is a pale imitation of the two better known titles. – Edwin Ashworth May 14 at 11:07

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