Placing Your Prepositions

This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.

Sir_Winston_S_ChurchillI cannot say I know who came up with the above epigram.  It is generally attributed to Winston Churchill, and for our purposes, we will assume this to be accurate, but for a quick and interesting exploration of the ambiguity surrounding the quotation and its authorship, click here.

Regardless of its authorship or even of its various formations, the rhetorical purpose of the epigram remains clear: to point out the problem with never ending a sentence with a preposition.  Sometimes, following that rule yields something that sounds much sillier than would have resulted from breaking it.  And for this reason, it is now commonly accepted, by authoritative English grammars, that prepositions are okay words to end sentences with.  Generally, if the preposition is not superfluous, it can be placed where ever it falls most naturally.  (But notice, this means that saying ‘Where are you at?’ is still wrong.  I guess the English-speaking world just isn’t quite ready for such a radical change.  But write to your grammarian representative if you support the movement.)

I would like to point out one more thing about the epigram.  The word ‘which’ as it is used in the epigram is called a ‘relative pronoun’.  In grammatical theory, a relative pronoun is a pronoun that links a relative clause to a main clause.  For example, in the sentence, ‘I enjoy reading this book, which is about grammar’, the ‘which’ is a relative pronoun referring to the direct object of the main clause, the book.  In this example, the subordinate clause merely gives us further information about a noun that has already been clearly identified, ‘this book’, and so it is classified as ‘nonrestrictive’.  If the subordinate clause were instead to serve in defining or restricting the object to which it is referring, it would be classified as ‘restrictive’, in which case, the restrictive relative pronoun, ‘that’, should be used instead.  For example, ‘I enjoy reading any book that is about grammar’.  Here, the subordinate clause restricts which books I enjoy reading.

So one distinction between the two types of clauses is the relative pronoun used; another is the syntax.  Nonrestrictive relative clauses are set off with commas, and restrictive clauses are not.  Hence, we have a problem with Churchill’s alleged quotation.  It seems quite clear that Churchill intended to form a restrictive relative clause.  Most formulations of the epigram do not use a comma, and it makes little sense as a nonrestrictive clause.  If Churchill had intended a nonrestrictive clause–one that merely gives further information about something in the main clause–then we should expect the main clause to make sense without that information, just as my example, ‘I enjoy reading this book, which is about grammar’, makes sense without the nonrestrictive relative clause (in which case it would read, ‘I enjoy reading this book’).  But, while it would be grammatically correct, it wouldn’t make sense for Churchill to merely exclaim ‘This is the sort of English!’  Just as in my example, ‘I enjoy reading any book that is about grammar’, removing the restrictive clause fundamentally alters the meaning of the sentence (in which case it would read ‘I enjoy reading any book’).  Churchill’s relative clause is in fact defining what sort of English ‘this’ is.

So Churchill probably intended to use a restrictive clause, in which case, he used the wrong relative pronoun.  He should have used ‘that’.  But I imagine even fewer people would get the joke if he had exclaimed, ‘This is the sort of English up with that I will not put’.  That’s even sillier!

Of course he could have just said ‘I will not put up with this sort of English’, but I suppose that’s too simple.