Winston Churchill? Rudy Vallee? Army Captain? 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 tale may be false. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: This famous tale has attracted the interest of many researchers over the decades. Ben Zimmer, a brilliant linguist who writes for the Wall Street Journal on the topic of language, obtained the pivotal citations and located an instance of the comical phrase in the Wall Street Journal of September 30, 1942. The text referred to an earlier appearance in The Strand magazine but it did not provide an exact pointer [BZCQ] [WJGP].
Based on this lead QI has now located the earliest known instance of a version of this anecdote in the May 1942 issue of The Strand. 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 [TSGP]:
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.”
It is conceivable that this story was based on an actual incident, but the other jokes on the page emphasized humor over plausibility and used generic figures such as: “the black marketeer”, “a noted prima donna”, and “the perplexed young man”. Veracity was probably forfeited to comedy.
Winston Churchill was connected to this joke in a multi-step process that began in 1944 with a cable sent from England to North American newspapers, but tracing this tale is complicated because some newspapers apparently insisted on rewriting the key phrase. It is possible that zealous newspaper copy editors did not quite understand the intended humor and printed a garbled version of the jest. Alternatively, someone on Churchill’s staff did not fully understand the gibe and sent a phrase with a different word order.
The earliest citation located by QI that attributed the comical phrase with the proper word order to Churchill was dated September 15, 1945. Specifically, the phrase “up with which I will not put” was credited to him. The details of the evolving quip are given below with additional selected citations in chronological order.
The earliest known evidence of the joke appeared in May 1942 issue of The Strand as detailed previously. On August 5, 1942 another instance of the joke was printed in an Ottawa, Canada newspaper humor column titled “Once Over Lightly”. The story was still not connected to Churchill [ECOC]:
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. This key citation was found by Ben Zimmer, and it was included in the important reference work The Yale Book of Quotations [BZCQ] [WJGP] [WJYQ].
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 [CSMS]. In November 1942 the joke was printed in the Journal of Accountancy [JACT].
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 [ECJP]:
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.”
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 [BBNV]:
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 Winston Churchill was printed in several newspapers based on a cable report transmitted from London. Here is the article from the New York Times [WCNY]:
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. The article in the Chicago Tribune on the same day was very similar, but the words attributed to Churchill were re-ordered [WCCT]:
“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. QI suspects that the joke was garbled either in Britain or the United States.
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 [WCOC]:
“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.”
Finally, on September 15, 1945 The Montreal Gazette published an instance of the remark with the proper word order: “up with which I will not put”, and the newspaper credited the statement to Winston Churchill. Yet this anecdote was still not the complete modern version because it did not include a remark from an officious person claiming that a sentence should not end with a preposition [WCMG]:
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. [WCLH]
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 [WWRV]:
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 [LACO]:
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 [WCLA]:
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 [WCWP]:
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, the anecdote presenting a comical response to grammatical advice about prepositions began as a joke. The earliest known instance of the joke appeared in The Strand magazine in May 1942. The setting of the joke was an unspecified government department, and the author was not listed. Other figures such as a military commander and Rudy Vallee have also been featured in the gag.
Winston Churchill was connected to this humorous idea starting in 1944 with a message sent from Britain to North American newspapers. The comical story with Churchill evolved over a period of two years until the modern version emerged by 1946.
The illustration at the top of this post shows essayist John Dryden because he is usually blamed for formulating the rule prohibiting prepositions at the end of sentences.
[BZCQ] 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 link
[WJGP] 1942 September 30, Wall Street Journal, Pepper and Salt, Page 6, New York. (ProQuest)
[TSGP] 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
[ECOC] 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)
[WJYQ] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Winston Churchill, Page 155, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
[CSMS] 1942 October 07, Christian Science Monitor, In Lighter Vein, Fed Up With, Page 23, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
[JACT] 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)
[ECJP] 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)
[BBNV] 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
[WCNY] 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)
[WCCT] 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)
[WCOC] 1944 March 4, The Evening Citizen [Ottawa Citizen], Once Over Lightly, Page 22, Col. 4, Ottawa, Canada. (Google News Archive)
[WCLH] 1945 October 27, Lethbridge Herald, Left Hand Corner, Page labelled “Back Page”, [Page 16], [NArch Page 19], Column 2, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive)
[WWRV] 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)
[LACO] 1946 March 4, Los Angeles Times, “Take My Word For It!” by Frank Colby, Page 10, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[WCLA] 1946 April 7, Los Angeles Times, Things About Which: Women Are Talking by The Reviewer, Page C11, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[WCWP] 1946 September 30, Washington Post, Town Talk by Eva Hinton, Page 12, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)