They Will Never Agree. They Argue from Different Premises

Sydney Smith? Punch? Evan Esar? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A disagreement between two people is sometimes caused by a difference in underlying assumptions. Two individuals arguing from different premises are likely to reach different conclusions.

This notion can be comically transformed via a pun on the word “premises” which can mean “assumptions” or “residences”. The famous English wit Sydney Smith has received credit for crafting this type of joke, but skepticism is justified because he is a quotation magnet. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the London humor magazine “Punch” in September 1841. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

When a person holds an argument with his neighbour on the opposite side of the street, why is there no chance of their agreeing?–Because they argue from different premises.

No attribution was specified; hence, QI conjectures that the joke was crafted by one of the “Punch” editors or a contributor:

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The punless observation about argumentation from differing premises has a long history. For example, an 1826 book of “English Synonymes” contained an entry discussing the word “disagree” which included the following line: 2

. . . two writers on the same subject may disagree in their conclusions, because they set out from different premises.

Reverend Sydney Smith did use the phrase “different premises” within a letter he penned in 1831, but he used it with a conventional meaning and not as part of a pun: 3

It must occur to you, however, that your information, and that of any other individual not in His Majesty’s Government, must necessarily be very imperfect; and that, if we differ on what is to be done, it is most probably because we reason upon very different premises.

In September 1841 “Punch” magazine printed the joke under examination as mentioned previously. In October 1841 “The Leeds Times” of England propagated the joke further when it reprinted several items from “Punch”. 4

In February 1859 “The Birmingham Journal” of England published a close variant without attribution: 5

When two neighbours dispute from their respective windows, why is there no chance of their being able to agree? Because they argue from different premises.

In May 1859 “The Birmingham Journal” printed an anecdotal instance with the punchline ascribed to the well-known Anglican cleric Sydney Smith: 6

Sydney Smith, passing through a bye-street behind St. Paul’s, heard two women abusing each other from opposite houses. “They will never agree,” said the wit; “they argue from different premises.”

Sydney Smith died in 1845; hence, the above attribution was posthumous which reduces its credibility.

In July 1859 an anonymous version of the joke appeared in “Yankee-Notions” of New York 7 and “Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine” of Boston, Massachusetts: 8

When a person disputes with his neighbor from their respective windows, why is there no chance of their being able to agree? Because they argue from different premises.

Also, in July 1859 a newspaper in Wheeling, West Virginia printed a version of the anecdote which used a variant name spelling: “Sidney” instead of “Sydney”: 9

Sidney Smith, passing through a by street behind St. Paul’s, heard two women abusing each other from opposite houses. “They will never agree,” said the wit; “they argue from different premises.”

In addition, in July 1859 a newspaper in Renfrewshire, Scotland printed a version of the anecdote with a different phrasing: 10

. . . it is like the case of the two women scolding from different houses, as wittily observed Sidney Smith; of course proceeding from different premises they can never agree.

The joke has appeared in many compilations over the years. For example, in 1882 “Short Sayings of Great Men” printed a brief instance with the punchline ascribed to Sydney Smith: 11

They will never agree: they are arguing from different premises.
Seeing two women abusing each other from opposite houses.

In 1943 “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” included the following entry without attribution: 12

quarreling neighbors.
They never agree because they argue from different premises.

In 1967 “The Modern Handbook of Humor” assembled by Ralph L. Woods printed the following instance: 13

Reverend Sydney Smith, while walking down the street in a residential neighborhood, came upon two women who stood in their respective yards and howled insults at each other. “They will never agree,” said Smith, “because they are arguing from different premises.”

In conclusion, the earliest instance of the joke located by QI appeared in “Punch” magazine in 1841. The creator was unidentified; hence, the attribution anonymous is logical. The pun may have been crafted by one of the “Punch” editors or a contributor.

Sydney Smith died in 1845, and the joke was attributed to him by 1859. Based on current evidence QI assigns low credibility to this ascription.

Image Notes: Painting depicting “An Argument from Opposite Premises” by Ralph Hedley who died in 1913. This image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Nigel Rees whose October 2020 newsletter printed an inquiry which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Henry Hardy who initiated the inquiry. Rees and Hardy located valuable citations in 1859, 1872, and 1876. Further thanks to Rees who located the wonderfully apposite painting by Hedley.)

Notes:

  1. 1841 September 25, Punch, Or The London Charivari, Volume 1, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 123, Column 1, Published at The Punch Office, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1826, English Synonymes with Copious Illustrations and Explanations by George Crabb, A New Edition Enlarged, Entry: To Differ, Vary, Disagree, Dissent, Quote Page 99, Column 2, Printed for Baldwin, Craddock and Joy by C. Baldwin, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1855, A Memoir of The Reverend Sydney Smith, By His Daughter Lady Holland With a Selection from His Letters, Edited by Mrs. Austin, Volume 2 of 2, Fourth Edition, Letter Date: October 1831, Letter From: Sydney Smith, Letter To: The Countess Grey: Letter Location: Castle Hill, Comment: The quotation appears in a section of the letter which was written by Sydney Smith in the style of Lord Grey, Quote Page 328, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1841 October 9, The Leeds Times, Miscellaneous: Errata in the Times from Punch, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Leeds, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  5. 1859 February 12, The Birmingham Journal, Supplement to the Birmingham Journal, VARIETIES, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  6. 1859 May 21, The Birmingham Journal, Supplement to the Birmingham Journal, VARIETIES, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  7. 1859 July, Yankee-Notions, Volume 8, Number 7, Conundrums, Quote Page 211, Column 2, Published by T. W. Strong, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1859 July, Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, Volume 10, Number 1, Merry-Making, Quote Page 100, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1859 July 1, The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, (Untitled item), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Wheeling, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1859 July 30, The Greenock Telegraph, Our Foreign Policy, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Renfrewshire, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  11. 1882, Short Sayings of Great Men: With Historical and Explanatory Notes, Edited by Samuel Arthur Bent, Section: Sydney Smith, Start Page 499, Quote Page 505, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Entry: neighbor, Quote Page 191, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1967, The Modern Handbook of Humor by Ralph L. Woods (Ralph Louis Woods), Section: Puns, Malaprops, and Spoonerisms, Sub-Section: Word Wranglers, Quote Page 267, Column 1, The McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)