We couldn't resist: We explain why the old Winston Churchill grammar joke is funny.
Here’s a famous grammar joke about Winston Churchill. You’ve probably heard it. This version is from a 1946 story in the "Washington Post":
[A] stuffy young Foreign Office secretary … 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!”
According to Fred R. Shapiro on his website “Quote Investigator,” versions of this story go back at least to 1941, and Churchill only got added to the story in 1943. But the story is still a good demonstration of how ridiculous your writing can end up sounding if you follow the rules you’re given too rigidly.
Of course, the idea that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition has always been a bad fit with the way English grammar actually works. We’ve covered this topic in previous episodes, particularly episode 800. The fact is that English allows you a choice of what to do with a preposition when the noun phrase that would normally follow it is missing. For example, if you’re asking about your upcoming vacation plans, you could ask either “What hotel are we staying in?” with the preposition “in” at the end of the question, or “In what hotel are we staying?” with “in” moved to before the noun phrase “what hotel.”
Prepositions and particles
The complications come when we’re dealing with more than one preposition. In the Churchill joke, he moves not just the “with,” but also the “up,” away from the end of the sentence. If he had moved just the “with,” he would have ended up with: “This is the kind of pedantic nonsense with which I will not put up!” That sentence is still somewhat awkward, but not laughably so in the way that “up with which I will not put” is.
To understand why not, we need to take a closer look at phrasal verbs. Here’s what we said about phrasal verbs in episode 608, written by Marcia Riefer Johnston:
[A] phrasal verb (such as “pour in”) is a verb made up of multiple words. Each phrasal verb has a main verb (such as “pour”) and one or more small following words (such as “in”) — that work together to convey a single idiomatic meaning.
The phrasal verb “pour in” has the idiomatic meaning “flow rapidly in a steady stream.”
People often describe phrasal verbs as including a main verb plus one or more “prepositions.” The problem is that thinking of a word as a preposition in cases where it’s not behaving like a typical preposition can be confusing. . . . If you want to avoid the confusion, you can call these words particles instead of prepositions when they’re part of a verb.
A phrasal verb creates meaning as a unit even if the main verb is separated from its particle. . . . For example, in the sentence “The student took the idea in,” even though “took” and “in” aren’t next to each other, the verb is “took in,” meaning “absorbed.”
Direct objects, particles, and prepositional phrases
So far, so good: We can think of a particle as a preposition that doesn’t take an object. But if verbs can take direct objects, or prepositional phrases, or particles, this means that in theory, there could be seven kinds of verbs that take one, or two, or all three of these kinds of items. Let’s use the verb “take” as an example.
1. It can take just a direct object, as in “We took a vacation.” The direct object is “a vacation.”
2. It can take just a particle, as in, “Take off,” meaning to leave suddenly. “Bye! I’m going to take off.” The “off” doesn’t take an object in this sentence, so it’s a particle.
3. It can take just a prepositional phrase, as in “Ben takes after his father.” In this sentence, “after his father” is a prepositional phrase.
4. It can take a particle and a direct object, as in the example from episode 608: “The student took the idea in.” The direct object is “the idea,” and the “in” is a particle. Notice how in this example, the direct object came between the verb “take” and the particle “in.”
An interesting fact about phrasal verbs that take both a direct object and a particle is that you can also have them in the other order, with the direct object after the particle. So in addition to saying “The student took the idea in,” we could also say, “The student took in the idea.” This flexibility works only with very short noun phrases, such as “the idea.” Longer noun phrases have to come after the particle; for example, “The student took in many new ideas.” It sounds weird if you say, “The student took many new ideas in.”
Pronouns, on the other hand, have to come before the particle; for example, “The student took it in.” If you try to put the particle first, it just doesn’t sound right. “The student took in it" is nonsense.
For comparison, let’s return to the example of “take” with just a prepositional phrase: “Ben takes after his father.” Now let’s suppose that instead of “his father,” we use the pronoun “him.” We know that “after” is a preposition here, because the pronoun “him” has to come after it. That is, we can say, “Ben takes after him,” but “Ben takes him after” is wrong.
5. “Take” can have both a direct object and a prepositional phrase, as in “I need to take you into my confidence.” The direct object is “you,” and the prepositional phrase is “into my confidence.”
6. “Take” can take both a particle and a prepositional phrase, as in, “I can take over for you.” In this example, “over” is a particle, because it doesn’t take an object. The prepositional phrase is “for you.”
This is where the phrasal verb “put up with” fits in. In a sentence like, “I don’t put up with pedantic nonsense,” “up” is a particle, and “with pedantic nonsense” is a prepositional phrase.
7. “Take” can require a particle, a direct object, and a prepositional phrase, as in “If you have a complaint, take it up with the manager.” In this sentence, the direct object is “it,” and “up” is a particle. We know this because the “it” comes before the “up” instead of after it, and “with the manager” is a prepositional phrase.
Particles don’t pied-pipe!
Now that we’ve highlighted the difference between prepositions and particles, how does that shed light on Churchill’s “pedantic nonsense” punchline? It has to do with another difference between particles and prepositions, one that syntacticians call “pied-piping.” This term is an allusion to the folk tale, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” The adjective “pied,” by the way, means “colorful”; it does not mean “covered with pie,” as I thought when I was a child.
The Pied Piper was a colorfully dressed man who would rid villages of rats by playing music on a magical pipe, which enchanted the rats and caused them to follow the piper out of the village. The linguist John Robert Ross coined the term “pied-piping” in his 1967 dissertation to refer to the way that English allows prepositions to be moved from the end of a sentence to before the verb, in sentences such as “In which hotel will we be staying?” In Ross’s analogy, the “which” is like the Pied Piper, and the “in” is like an enchanted rat, following the “which” all the way to its position at the beginning of the sentence.
But unlike prepositions, particles don’t pied-pipe! To see this rule in action, let’s go back to our example with “take” and a direct object and a particle: “The student took the idea in.” If we phrased it as a question, we could say, “Which idea did the student take in?” If we described the idea with a relative clause, we could say “the idea which the student took in.” Both of those are fine. But if we try to pied-pipe the “in,” we quickly run into trouble: “In which idea did the student take?” doesn’t make sense at all, and neither does “the idea in which the student took.”
And now, finally, we come back to our Churchill punch line, “This is the kind of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put!” It crashes because Churchill is brute-forcibly pied-piping the particle “up.”
'Up on which we followed'
We get the same kind of effect with other phrasal verbs that take both a particle and a preposition. Let’s try it with “follow up on.” Of course, you can find plenty of sentences containing phrases such as “which we followed up on,” without any pied-piping. I started my search by looking for examples such as “on which we followed up,” with just the preposition “on” pied-piped. They’re pretty scarce! I didn’t turn up any in the BYU English Corpora, and eventually I just did some ordinary internet searches. I found a few examples, including:
- a number of names of indicted co-conspirators emerged on which we followed up
- They volunteered some worthwhile local tourist tips on which we followed up.
However, when I searched for examples such as “up on which we followed,” with pied-piping for both “up” and “on,” I found nothing anywhere: not in the BYU English Corpora, and not in ordinary internet searching.
'Along with whom I get'
I did a similar search with the phrasal verb “get along with.” They’re rare, too, but I was able to find examples with pied-piping of the “with,” such as these:
Should I be concerned if a sibling — with whom I don't get along — is the executor AND beneficiary of my parents' will?
But when I searched for examples such as “along with whom I don’t get,” where both the preposition “with” and the particle “along” are pied-piped, I got nothing.
'Down on which they cracked'
The phrasal verb “crack down on” has the particle “down” and the preposition “on.” I found several examples with pied-piping for the “of,” such as this one:
The government faced dissent in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, on which it cracked down using the military and "volunteer battalions"
(Corpus of Historical American English)
Again, though, no examples with pied-piping of both the “on” and the “down”: No phrases like “the dissent down on which they cracked.”
'Away with which they got'
Next up, the phrasal verb “get away with,” with the particle “away” and the preposition “with.” I found several examples with pied-piping for the “with,” including this:
I found no examples with pied-piping for both the “with” and the “away” — no examples like “all the shenanigans away with which we got.”
'Forward to which I look'
The phrasal verb “look forward to” takes the particle “forward,” and the preposition “to.” It’s possible to find examples with pied-piping for the “to,” such as these:
As for phrases like “events forward to which I’m looking,” nothing.
Now it’s possible that examples like “along with whom I don’t get” do exist, and I just wasn’t persistent enough in looking for them. But after failing to find them for five phrasal verbs — in addition to “put up with” — it looks like the pattern is real: You can’t pied-pipe a particle.
They say you should never explain a joke, but if you’ve listened to our “Make me a sandwich” episode or the “Dad jokes” episode, you know that we have no problem breaking that rule, which is more of a guideline, anyway. In the case of the “up with which I will not put” joke, I find that the explanation replaces one kind of humor with another. I still laugh at the joke, but instead of an “English is so wild!” kind of laugh, it’s more of an “I see what you did there” kind of laugh.
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