Up With Which

There are many variations on a quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill that I first read as follows: This is…

There are many variations on a quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill that I first read as follows:

This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.

The apocryphal quotation is said to have been Churchill’s response to an editor’s correction of one of his sentences to keep it from ending with a preposition.

The old rule dictating that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition comes to us in English on the basis not of any inherent sense but rather on the basis of the Latin words that make up the word “preposition” — “pre” meaning “before” and “position” meaning, well, “position.” Very literal-minded grammarians a few hundred years ago decided that a part of speech whose name means that it must go before something surely can’t go at the end of a sentence, where there is no other word for it to precede. Most of the grammar and usage books I’ve read in recent years have conceded that the rule is stupid and that we need not worry ourselves over it too much, especially in cases in which shifting the preposition around makes a sentence awkward.

Before we charge ahead, let’s back up for a moment and review what prepositions are. They’re words like:

  • before
  • ahead*
  • back*
  • up
  • for

I vividly remember learning in grade school that prepositions are words that describe where a chicken might go.

The quotation attributed to Churchill is funny, then, because he’s twisting a big knot in his sentence to avoid ending it with the word “with” for precisely the purpose of showing the pedantic editor how silly such rearrangement can be. Rewritten as most of us would write the sentence, it would go something like this:

This is the type of arrant pedantry I will not put up with.

It turns out that there’s actually something else going on here, though. “Put up with” is what’s called a “phrasal verb” — a verb phrase that includes more than one word and in which the auxiliary word is very often a preposition acting as an “adverbial particle.” In other words, although structurally, the words “up” and “with” here are prepositions, functionally they’re adverbs modifying the verb “put” and thus don’t really need to follow the old rule (even for those who insist on trying to follow it).

We use these all the time. Some examples:

  • blow up
  • come by (as in “he comes by it honestly”)
  • deal with
  • decide on
  • dry out
  • get on with
  • hurry up

Imagine leaning over to a friend during the long-winded introduction of a speaker you’re eager to hear and whispering “I wish on with it he would get.”

Generally, mangling your sentences to follow the preposition rule isn’t the best idea — it surely doesn’t result in the clearest sentences — and in the case of phrasal verbs, it’s not just a little absurd, but it’s actually not even called for.

* A reader pointed out to me in the comments that these are not in fact prepositions. I should think my grammar through more carefully before tossing out examples willy nilly.

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  1. I taught English for 5 years at a community college, and I’ve only recently convinced myself that I can in fact end a sentence with a preposition. I’ve finally conceded the fact that it often just sounds better that way. If I can rewrite the sentence so it doesn’t end with a preposition and makes conversational sense, I will do that. But, I’m not anal about it like I used to be. See, even us English teachers can change our grammar ways!

  2. When I write, I seldom even think of the rules (as if I could remember them anyway). I play it by ear and try to keep the rhythm going. My editors can alert me if I mess up, or so I hope, when I pay them to look over my shoulder. Even so, this was/is a really interesting article and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about the rules a little more whether I intend to or not now. I still haven’t finished tripping over punctuation yet. Thank God for editors!

  3. Thanks for writing about this topic and in such a clear way to boot. This is one of my least favorite of the zombie rules, to use a phrase I heard over at one of my favorite blogs (Language Log). I see this rule touted often, but not typically with a clear explanation of the “why” behind it — rather, “that’s just the way it is.” Most of us don’t really know the fine ins and outs of grammar so having rules like this makes a certain amount of sense as a shortcut to better writing. But these rules are often more nuanced than they first appear, if not downright antiquated and unhelpful.

  4. Very interesting Mr. Houston. I recently was involved in a discussion about this very same thing and am always cognizant of ending a sentence with a preposition. In my inner circle my conversation is relaxed and we don’t stand on ceremony (if you will) but when I’m in a different setting I try not to misuse the Queen’s English.

  5. Thank you for the clear explanation of something I learned back in the day…late 1950’s. Once in a while I think about the not ending with a preposition that some teacher must have drummed into my head…but I forget about Sir Churchill and the “famous” sentence. Thanks for the interesting read.
    Siggi in Downeast Maine

    1. PS…there are words and phrases here in Downeast Maine that defy any is interesting to find out how the language evolved to were it now is.

    2. Just to be extra pedantic: the title ‘Sir’ is always used with the first name or the full name, never the surname alone. (Or you can do what the post does and disregard titles entirely, because they’re silly.)

      1. Thank you for pointing out that I did not include Sir Winston Churchill’s first name. Not a purposeful error, but indeed, haste makes for errors.
        I will remember this rule for sure.

        Siggi in Downeast Maine

  6. I too was brought up in the 1950s, and I also remember that if one will take the time to think about it there is usually an easier way to say something, such as, “I will not put up witih such arrant pedantry.” Somewhere along the way in my early years, however, I also remember learning about humor being used as a quiet but very effective weapon, and I believe that’s what Churchill was going for, throwing back in the editor’s face just how something would sound if he were to follow the rules all the time. Oh, and btw, shouldn’t that be “even WE English teachers can change our grammar ways”?

  7. I wish I’d known about the chicken when I was teaching. It’s a good mnemonic.Where the preposition ends up depends on what and to whom I’m writing. (Gotta get that *who/whom* thing right.)

  8. An irritating position that every writer has found themselves in and every student has been corrected. Good points made, especially regarding the adverb relation to the preposition. Such scintillating conversation.

  9. Interesting point, but both variations of the phrase make sense. We shouldn’t always speak like yoda, but in some cases ‘with which’ sounds better, I think.

    1. Sure, sometimes “with which” sounds fine; the point here is that it’s not really even appropriate in some cases, as when what you’re dealing with is a phrasal verb and not a prepositional phrase. Yet people still incorrectly correct themselves, typically in order to try to sound proper. Hearing such a correction is similar, in my view, to hearing someone overcorrect and use “I” where “me” is actually appropriate.

  10. One should listen to ‘cockney’ language or ‘Geordie’ language an then try to write it down on paper, once that is done,they then should try to analyse and see how language is changing…Write as one speaks????

    1. I’m not sure a UK regional dialect is a better or worse example of language changing? Or are you suggesting that the dialects are rooted in the past? It’s also pretty easy to write down though, hinnie. There are plenty of people who speak one language and write another, for example, where I live here in Gibraltar.

    2. Something like Cockney is a special kind of language change because its roots are in deliberate obfuscation of language. That is, it arose out of a desire of its speakers to actually hide what they were saying. It surely is language change, but it’s a special, sort of accelerated, variety.

  11. Good point. Always entertaining and enlightening! BTW, have you tackled the “me” and “I” usage in a previous entry? I always cringe when someone says something like, “Me and Daryl here, we’re going camping this weekend.”

  12. That quote in the next to last paragraph sound vaguely like Yoda. Is that what Yoda is doing, trying to use good grammar and butchering it.
    Maybe you should do a post on the grammatical structure of Yoda-speak.

  13. This is so liberating! Just this week I was getting after myself for this absurd old school rule. Of course, I ignored my inner grumblings and ended with with anyway. Ha.

  14. It is said that if you want to frighten people trying to learn a language, start by teaching them grammar. Was always scared of the subject in school, had given my teachers a tough time as they tried to force it down my throat.
    My policy is, read a sentence or paragraph after you have typed it, if it makes sense go ahead and publish it. ,

    1. i like to read the sentence out loud…if it sounds right reading it out loud,
      I go with it…occasionally, like my error way above in the comments, I type and send, and whammo…chalk on the blackboard error…but one I usually don’t make twice. I find as I get older, I have to really think about what I write, the punctuation and grammar.

  15. One of the more little-known rationale for the preposition rule is ecclesiastical: to prevent insertion of ‘unauthorised’ material in biblical or other religious texts a couple hundred years ago. The preposition rule (for the English language) is highly likely to have been designed to ‘protect’ religious writings that were translatable into English since order of words in Latin isn’t as important as in English. It’s just one of those lore of the printing industry that people who stayed long enough in the business gets to pick up.

      1. I wish I could – I’m recounting entirely from memory (yeah, I know how THAT sounds) from some book about hand compositing (typesetting) back in the 1970s or latest mid-1980s. Heaven knows even *I* wanted to be pointed to that book myself.

        I also recall the book adding a rider that it too cannot confirm or deny this factoid or trivia. A lot of things are like that (unconfirmable, undeniable) in the ecclesiastical world. But I have to admit the rationale definitely sounds plausible, especially for those who’ve had even a short time suffering Latin in school.

        My recommendation: just say it’s a brain-damaged rumour from me or something.

      2. Ah, well. I did find this, which is about a great conspiracy to mistranslate the Bible, and there’s mention of one preposition issue. Maybe something along these lines has morphed into the rationale you’re remembering. An interesting line of thought to ponder, in any case.

  16. Unfortunately, “ahead” and “back” are not prepositions. They typically are used as adverbs (although “back” is, of course, also a noun). Also, your example of “I wish on with it he would get” is not a comparable example for a dangling preposition, as we would tend to say, “I wish he would get on with it.” “It” is a pronoun, the object of the preposition “with,” and is therefore perfectly fine when used as the ending of a sentence.

    Other than these details of usage, your main point is well taken.

    1. Good catches re “ahead” and “back.” I got caught up in giving a silly example and gave incorrect advice there.

      The other item I’ll grant you technical correctness on, but I really intended there to show an absurd example of hyper-correction nobody would actually do, and that was the stilted example I came up with. In other words, it was the rearrangement of the “get on with” that I was concerned about, and in my haste, I didn’t even notice that the original sentence didn’t end in a preposition to begin with. Thanks for pointing out the lapse.

      1. Not to worry. I really did appreciate your comments and your main point. I am simply a linguist and a grammar/usage freak, so I could not help but comment. Forgive me if I seemed too caustic — this is my passion, as I am a confessed linguaholic. Your point was very well taken and much needed!

    2. Oh, not at all! I’m glad you corrected me (I’ve added a note to the post). If the guy who’s telling people what’s considered correct is getting it wrong, he needs to be corrected, so I’m sincerely grateful.

  17. Nice post. I believe that the rule came about during the resurgence of Latin “as it ought to be spoken” as opposed to how it was spoken at the time and a slavish reinterpretation of English grammar in the light of the “more perfect” Latin.

    I think though that this rule is an example of the fallacy of equivocation. Somehow it was decided that a word used regularly as a preposition was a preposition and therefore could only ever be used as a preposition. In those cases where it just sounds right to end with the “preposition,” it is not being used that way. It is an integral, if mobile, part of the verb. This is a commonality of the Germanic branch of languages to which English belongs.

    An imperfect analogy might be if it were decided that “position” was a noun and therefore could not possibly be a verb. Languages are more vibrant and complex than any simple one-to-one mapping can account for.

  18. Fair enough. However, nothing in that excellent explanation in any way justifies the practice of slapping the word “at” on the end of sentences for no apparent reason, as in “Where did you get that at?”

    The penalty for this misdemeanor will continue to be a happy smile and a polite answer: “Right before the ‘at.'”
    (Because we be pedantic like that, yo.)

    1. Yeah, the “at” there doesn’t sound great, but the issue isn’t so much a preposition at the end of a sentence as simply a misused preposition. “From” would be more appropriate in most cases. Some would still bristle at the use of “from” in place of “at” (still at the end of the sentence).

  19. Actually, wouldn’t the sentence be correct without either “at” OR “from”? “Where,” in this case, is enough on its own and needs nothing else to describe it.

    1. For my money, “where did you get that” just feels kind of chopped off. That said, in informal spoken conversation, it’s probably better (less stuffy) than both “from where did you get that” and “where did you get that from.”

      1. It might sound chopped off because so many people use the “at” or “from” when they don’t need to. I understand that English–ANY langauge that is still alive–must change and grow in order to do that. However, there are things that make the language even longer and more encumbered than it need be..I believe this is one of those times.