December 08, 2004

A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put

An old, old story about Winston Churchill (almost certainly misattributed) is retold one more time by Joe Carter at The Evangelical Outpost:

After an overzealous editor attempted to rearrange one of Winston Churchill's sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, the Prime Minister scribbled a single sentence in reply: "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put."

Joe notes correctly that in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (see page 627, footnote 11) it is mentioned that "The ‘rule’ was apparently created ex nihilo in 1672 by the essayist John Dryden." (See the article "Preposition at end" in (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage for more discussion). However, there is one thing he doesn't point out, and hardly anybody ever has, except in footnote 12 on page 629 of The Cambridge Grammar, and briefly on Language Log in a post that Mark did a while back: Churchill (or whoever it may have been) was cheating, in two separate ways. I think perhaps the point may bear repeating and elaborating a bit (you don't have to read on if you've already know this stuff).

The strategy was to construct a case in which leaving a preposition at the end of the clause would be decisively the preferred style (for other such cases, see The Cambridge Grammar, pp. 628-630), and then to front the preposition to show the ignorant editor what a stupid rule he was trying to enforce. But the example involves cheating. Twice.

First, the example is one in which the preferred form of the sentence ended in two prepositions, the second with an object and the first without, and he fronted both of them. That's never allowed. So no wonder it sounds ungrammatical. The ungrammaticality shows nothing about whether or not preposition stranding ordinarily sounds ungrammatical.

To see clearly that it is illicit, it is useful to steer round the second point (which I'll come to later), and start with a different case of a sentence ending in a preposition sequence, one that does not involve an idiom or fixed phrase (my invented examples in what follows will be in blue):

The restaurant got a complaint from the people that the woman was staring in at.

To make this not end in a preposition, should you feel for some reason you want to avoid the normal construction, you would simply do this:

The restaurant got a complaint from the people at which the woman was staring in.

That's much more formal, and not at all an improvement (one is almost inclined to put a ‘?’ in front of it to signal lowered acceptability), but it is English. However, you might ask, doesn't it still end with a preposition? Well, yes and no. It ends in a word that is classed as a preposition by The Cambridge Grammar, which takes what I consider the right view. But it's a preposition that does not take an object. For that reason it is irrelevant. In fact the traditional view (which has a somewhat fetishistic attachment to the Latin meaning of pre-) refuses to call it a preposition because it is not before a noun phrase.

All current dictionaries follow the traditional view: they would call in an adverb in a case like She stared in. And in cases of that sort, everyone has always agreed that such words can end a sentence. Otherwise you'd be saying that sentences like I'm afraid Mr Threadcroft is not in, or It's cold, so we should go in, are ungrammatical. That would be even more crazy than banning the cases where a preposition is stranded. (By calling a preposition stranded I mean roughly that it's not followed by its complement because it's in a clause like a relative or an interrogative that permits the complement to be at the beginning of the clause, as in the people that the woman was staring at, or to be understood as having an earlier noun phrase as its antecedent, as in the people the woman was staring at That isn't a totally watertight definition of stranding, but it will perhaps do for present purposes).

Now, the key thing, which is independent of the terminological conflict, is this: you certainly can't front one of these prepositions that traditional grammar would call an adverb, in addition to fronting a preposition that has an object:

*The restaurant got a complaint from the people in at which the woman was staring.

Yet that's what Churchill (if it was he) did in the famous up with which I will not put.

But there's another dishonesty in the example. It uses an idiom that doesn't like to be broken up at all by any kind of reordering. When you use the idiomatic verb phrase put up with X, you have to keep the sequence put up with as is. Almost nobody, however formal, thinks that it would be a style improvement to take this interrogative sentence

How many interruptions am I supposed to put up with?

and re-phrase it this way:

??With how many interruptions am I supposed to put up?

It's decidedly awkward, possibly even ungrammatical.

So in the first place, up with which I will not put illicitly preposes not one but two prepositions (the second one being a preposition that under traditional analyses of his time would have been called an adverb), and that's never permissible. And in the second place, it does it to an idiom which resists preposition fronting anyway, so even fronting just the with would have sounded bad.

The mythical rule about preposition stranding being a grammatical fault is indeed nonsense, and it's not something you should put up with. But the tricky little piece of cheating attributed to Churchill does not show that.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 8, 2004 03:06 PM