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

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.

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

Notes:

  1. 1941 July 31, The West Sussex Gazette, Our Comment and Gossip: Things in General, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Sussex, England. (British Newspaper Archive)