This Is the Sort of Nonsense Up With Which I Will Not Put

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.

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