Winston Churchill? Rudy Vallee? Army Captain? High School Teacher? The Strand Magazine? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: My question concerns a memorable anecdote about the statesman Winston Churchill and the fine points of grammar. In the past many books offering grammatical advice told readers that they must never end a sentence with a preposition. Years ago when Churchill solicited comments by circulating a draft of an important speech he received a criticism that included a correction to his text. One of his sentences was rearranged to comply with the preposition rule. An irate Churchill responded with one of the following ripostes:
- This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.
- This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
- This is the type of impertinence up with which I shall not put.
I enjoy this story and have retold it on numerous occasions because it demonstrates how clumsy a sentence can become when it is mechanically rewritten to comply with a nonsensical prohibition. Sadly, I have learned that his story may be apocryphal. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: This famous tale has attracted the interest of many researchers over the decades. The earliest instance known to QI appeared on July 31, 1941 within “The West Sussex Gazette” of Sussex, England. Churchill was not involved; instead, the anecdote featured an unnamed English master from a high school who was called upon to join the military. During correspondence with a superior officer, the English master was scolded for placing a preposition at the end of a sentence, and he responded by employing the comically awkward sentence. The phrase “ticked off” in the passage below meant “scolded”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
The superior, who was something of a martinet, precise in matters of composition, “ticked off” his junior for ending a sentence with a preposition. Whereupon the junior, in his reply, while acknowledging himself the obedient servant of his superior in matters affecting his military duties, declined to take orders from him in respect of his use of the English language. This, he announced, was “a thing up with which I will not put”. Perhaps he has learnt otherwise since!
Winston Churchill was connected to this joke in a multi-step process that began in 1943. Details are given further below together with additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1910 a different joke about prepositions appeared in “A Guide to Technical Writing” by Thomas Arthur Rickard. The following awkwardly phrased rule was self-violating because the final word was a preposition; hence, this quip was distinct: 2
A humorist once stated the rule thus: “Never use a preposition to end up a sentence with.”
The joke under examination appeared in an English newspaper in 1941 as shown previously.
The next earliest instance appeared in the May 1942 issue of “The Strand Magazine”. Churchill was not mentioned in this tale titled “The End of a Sentence” which appeared in a section called “World Laughs” containing several other short humorous pieces: 3
When a memorandum passed round a certain Government department, one young pedant scribbled a postscript drawing attention to the fact that the sentence ended with a preposition, which caused the original writer to circulate another memorandum complaining that the anonymous postscript was “offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put.”
On August 5, 1942 another instance was printed in an Ottawa, Canada newspaper humor column titled “Once Over Lightly”: 4
Someone has chided us for ending a sentence with a preposition. In the words of an English clerk who was impaled for the same offense, this is a bit of pedantry “up with which we cannot put.”
On September 30, 1942 the “Wall Street Journal” reprinted the humorous story from “The Strand” in its “Pepper and Salt” humor column and acknowledged the magazine. 5 This key citation and others were found by Ben Zimmer, 6 a brilliant linguist who writes for the Wall Street Journal on the topic of language.
The tale in “The Strand” was popular and it was reprinted in several periodicals. For example, on October 7, 1942 it was published in the “Christian Science Monitor”. 7 In November 1942 the joke was printed in the “Journal of Accountancy”. 8
On December 2, 1942 a different version of the story with a military setting was published in “The Evening Citizen” of Ottawa, Canada. The newspaper acknowledged the journalist June Provines of the “Chicago Sun”: 9
An army captain who lacked formal education posted a notice on the company bulletin board that was so constructed grammatically that it ended with a preposition. A Harvard-educated private in the outfit read it and commented: “Isn’t it awful for a man with my education to have to take orders from a man who ends a sentence with a preposition?” The captain learned of the private’s remark and constructed a new notice:
“There is a certain amount of insubordination in this company up with which I shall not put.”
On October 9, 1943 a newspaper in Nottingham, England attributed the punchline to a person whose initials were “W.S.C.”, i.e., Winston S. Churchill. This was the first linkage to Churchill known to QI. The joke was incomplete because it did not include the prefatory statement about avoiding the placement of a preposition at the end of a sentence: 10
Perhaps a recent memorandum circulated among members of the Government has influenced the decision to “streamline” the Civil Service. The document was prolix and written in a heavy and pedantic style. From one reading it emerged with the following note over the initials “W.S.C.”:
“This memorandum is written in pompous English up with which I will not put.”
On January 21, 1944 a newspaper in Melbourne, Australia ascribed the punchline to Churchill. The joke was still incomplete because it did not include the prefatory statement: 11
Recently I had a note from a colleague in London quoting the story then going the rounds of a devastating retort made by the Prime Minister. To a long and flatulent report, he is said to have appended the following minute:
“This is an example of pompous and bastard English up with which I will not put.”
In February 1944 another variant was printed in “Billboard” magazine within an article describing the United States Armed Forces Radio Services (AFRS). The talent employed by the AFRS was selected from multiple military branches including the Navy and Army. In this instance of the tale an officer in the Navy berated a lower-ranked script writer because he had written a sentence ending with a preposition: 12
The performer, an officer, went into a tirade about his script. He concluded with “a fine writer you are. Thank God we’re in the navy. In civilian life all I could do was bawl you out. But here such work as this, imagine ending a sentence with a preposition, is a violation of orders and rank insubordination.”
To which the writer is supposed to have replied: “Yes, sir. It is rank insubordination. Up with which you should not have to put.”
On February 28, 1944 a story about Churchill was printed in several newspapers based on a cable report transmitted from London. Here is the article from the “New York Times”: 13
Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s pursuit of clarity and brevity in those embryonic state papers that British Ministers call “minutes” picked up considerably last week.
Faced with a long, rambling “minute” written on a minor subject by one Minister, Mr. Churchill scrawled the following across it in red ink:“This is the kind of tedious nonsense which I will not put up with.” Just to make his intention plain, the Prime Minister underscored “up” heavily.
Any joke about the placement of prepositions would have been unintelligible because the “New York Times” had placed the words “up” and “with” at the end of the sentence that was credited to Churchill.
It is possible that zealous newspaper copy editors did not quite understand the intended humor and modified the text. Alternatively, someone on Churchill’s staff did not fully understand the gibe and sent a phrase with a different word order.
The article in the “Chicago Tribune” on the same day was very similar, but the words attributed to Churchill were given a different order: 14
“This is the kind of tedious nonsense with which I will not put up.” The prime minister underscored “up” heavily.
In this instance the word “up” was placed at the end of the sentence attributed to Churchill. So once again any joke about avoiding the terminal placement of prepositions was undermined.
On March 4, 1944 the Ottawa Citizen attempted to reconstruct the quip. But the newspaper did not attribute the funny line to Churchill. Instead, the paper indicated that Churchill should have used the phrase but did not: 15
“This is the kind of tedious nonsense that I shall not put up with.” Mr. Churchill said. Such prepositional inelegance is perhaps forgivable in wartime, though from a prime minister of his scholarly background one would normally expect “. . . up with which I shall not put.”
On September 15, 1945 “The Montreal Gazette” published an instance with the proper word order credited to Churchill. Yet the joke remained incomplete because the prefatory remark was omitted: 16
He had been presented with a ponderous legal report, in which the plain meaning shone obscurely through many a whereas, whereof and wherefore. Mr. Churchill did his duty and read the report. But he returned it to those who had prepared it with this notation: “Whereas this report must be rewritten. Wherefore such stuff up with which I will not put.”
On October 27, 1945 a paper in Lethbridge, Alberta printed a uniquely scrambled statement and credited the words to Churchill. 17
The story is that Churchill was bedeviled by a high official who had a unique gift for writing reports in “officialese”, great rambling sentences …
At last one broke Churchill’s patience. He ordered it rewritten, jotting on the margin “This is the kind of stuff to put up with which I need not.”
Churchill was not the only famous person to be featured in the tale. On January 21, 1946 the influential newspaper columnist Walter Winchell told a variant with the popular heartthrob Rudy Vallee complaining to a script writer about preposition placement: 18
The Funnies: Rudy Vallee (Still going big as he did a decade ago) now and then gets into a pet with his script writers. One day Rudy blew up because one of his lines ended in “with” . . . He ranted and raved about ending a sentence with a preposition . . . The chief scripter just sat and stared at him . . . Finally, when he could get a word in sideways, he cooed: “I agree, Mr. Vallee. That is something up with which you should not have to put.”
On March 4, 1946 the language columnist of the Los Angeles Times published a letter presenting the quip again in a military setting: 19
Los Angeles: The superstition that it is ungrammatical to end a sentence with a preposition will doubtless be with us to the bitter end, despite your good efforts to explode the myth. Have you heard the one about the commanding officer who, on learning that one of his decisions had been criticized by his junior officers, posted a notice on the bulletin board which read: “This is a type of criticism up with which I shall not put”?
On April 7, 1946 the Los Angeles Times printed the following version with Churchill: 20
Women are passing along a bon mot in the current issue of Counter-Point. Winston Churchill, after laboring through the circumlocution and trailing prepositions of a governmental report, exploded, “This is the sort of stilted English up with which I will not put.”
On September 30, 1946 a full instance of the anecdote similar to the one originally told in “The Strand” was published in the Washington Post with Churchill as the main character: 21
Latest Churchill story going the rounds has to do with a stuffy young Foreign Office secretary who had the job of “vetting” the then Prime Minister’s magnificent speeches. The young man disliked the P.M.’s habit of ending sentences with prepositions and corrected such sentences whenever he found them.
Finally, Mr. Churchill had enough of this! So he recorrected his own speech and sent it back to the Foreign Office with a notation in red ink, “This is the kind of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put!”
In conclusion, this grammatical punchline first appeared within a humorous tale about a high school English teacher printed on July 31, 1941 in “The West Sussex Gazette” of England. The setting of the joke was changed to a British government department when it was retold in “The Strand Magazine” in May 1942. Variants have evolved over time. For example, a military commander and Rudy Vallee have been featured in instances of the gag.
Winston Churchill was connected to this humorous idea starting in October 1943. The comical story with Churchill changed over a period of three years until the modern version emerged by 1946.
(Many thanks to correspondent Braddon Upex who located the important citations dated July 31, 1941 and October 9, 1943. Also, thanks to Ben Zimmer who located the “Wall Street Journal” citation which acknowledged “The Strand”. In addition, thanks to Benjamin Barrett who located the 1910 citation.)
Update History: On May 18 and 19 of 2020 the citations dated 1910; July 31, 1941; and October 9, 1943 were added to the article. In addition, some parts of the article were rewritten.
- 1941 July 31, The West Sussex Gazette, Our Comment and Gossip: Things in General, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Sussex, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1910, A Guide to Technical Writing by T. A. Rickard (Thomas Arthur Rickard), Second Edition, Chapter: Standardization of English in Technical Literature, Quote Page 148, Mining and Scientific Press, San Francisco, California. (Internet Archive Archive.org) link ↩
- 1942 May, The Strand Magazine, Volume 103, World Laughs, The End of a Sentence, Page 75, G. Newnes. (Verified with photocopies from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh; Special thanks to my wonderful local librarian) link ↩
- 1942 August 5, The Evening Citizen [Ottawa Citizen], Once Over Lightly, Section: Editorials, Unnumbered page, [GN Page 33], Column 4, Ottawa, Canada. [GNA Database gives an incorrect date of August 4, 1942] (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1942 September 30, Wall Street Journal, Pepper and Salt, Page 6, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- Language Log website, “A Misattribution No Longer to be Put Up With” by Ben Zimmer, Posting date: December 12, 2004; “Churchill vs. Editorial Nonsense” by Ben Zimmer, Posting date: November 27, 2005. (Accessed at itre.cis.upenn.edu on June 5, 2012) link ↩
- 1942 October 07, Christian Science Monitor, In Lighter Vein, Fed Up With, Page 23, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1942 November, Journal of Accountancy, Section: Findings and Opinions, Grammar, Page 480, Issue 5, Volume 74, [Database combines article with “Tax effect in renegotiation of war contracts”], Published by American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. (ABI Inform) ↩
- 1942 December 2, The Evening Citizen [Ottawa Citizen], Press Paragraphs: Warning, (Acknowledgement: June Provines in Chicago Sun), Section: Editorials, Unnumbered Page, GNA Page 23, Ottawa, Canada. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1943 October 9, The Nottingham Journal, Russians Forcing Decisive Last Battle: Basic English, Quote Page 2, Column 6 and 7, Nottinghamshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1944 January 21, The Herald, Return Of The Warhorse by Geoffrey Tebbutt, Quote Page 4, Column 6 and 7, Melbourne, Australia. (Trove National Library of Australia) ↩
- 1944 February 5, Billboard, Army Broadcasting Selling The World as It Entertains G.I.’s on All Six Continents, Quote Page 19, Nielsen Business Media. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1944 February 28, New York Times, Much Too Long a ‘Minute’: Churchill’s Scorn Strikes at Minister’s ‘Tedious Nonsense’, (by Cable to the New York Times), Page 9, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1944 February 28, Chicago Tribune, Tedious Report Draws Rebuke from Churchill, Wireless to the New York Times and The Chicago Tribune, Page 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1944 March 4, The Evening Citizen [Ottawa Citizen], Once Over Lightly, Page 22, Col. 4, Ottawa, Canada. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1945 September 15, The Gazette (The Montreal Gazette), Up With Which I Will Not Put, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Montreal, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1945 October 27, Lethbridge Herald, Left Hand Corner, Page labelled “Back Page”, [Page 16], [NArch Page 19], Column 2, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1946 January 21, Spartanburg Herald (Herald-Journal), How Current Broadway Shows Rate With the Critics by Walter Winchell, Page 4 (GN says Page 6), Column 3, Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1946 March 4, Los Angeles Times, “Take My Word For It!” by Frank Colby, Page 10, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1946 April 7, Los Angeles Times, Things About Which: Women Are Talking by The Reviewer, Page C11, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1946 September 30, Washington Post, Town Talk by Eva Hinton, Page 12, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩