November 27, 2005

Churchill vs. editorial nonsense

For a while I've been on the trail of a saying usually attributed to Winston Churchill: "This is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which I will not put" (or some variation thereof). Typically the line appears in an anecdote where an officious clerk or editor tries to correct something Churchill has written by "fixing" his trailing prepositions, and Churchill then scribbles the famous comment in the margin of the revised text. I had previously found this anecdote circulating without reference to Churchill as early as 1942, with the first attributions to Churchill appearing in various forms in 1948. (A version in Sir Ernest Gowers' Plain Words that year played a large part in the story's dissemination.) Now I think I've found the original attribution to Churchill, though it differs in some important ways from later retellings.

The source is a short news story that was wired by a correspondent in London to both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune in February 1944. Even though the same story reached both newspapers, the New York Times editors made a few small but critical revisions, as a side-by-side comparison reveals:

Chicago Tribune, Feb. 28, 1944, p. 1 New York Times, Feb. 28, 1944, p. 9

I presume that the Tribune editors made few or no changes to the correspondent's original copy. (Notably, when the Los Angeles Times printed the article in the same day's paper, they used the exact same wording as the Tribune, even though they credited the New York Times. This suggests that the Tribune's version was the one that made the wires.)  The New York Times editors made a few sensible revisions (such as changing the odd adjectival usage of embryo to embryonic), but they made one change that seems to undercut Churchill's humor completely: they "fixed" the quote so that there are no fronted prepositions. (Technically speaking, up doesn't count as a preposition here; rather, as Geoffrey Pullum explains, it is considered an adverb in traditional grammatical analyses.)

Here are the three versions of the crucial relative clause:

up with which I will not put (attributed to an unnamed writer by the Strand Magazine in 1942, later to Churchill)
with which I will not put up (attributed to Churchill by the Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times, Feb. 28, 1944)
which I will not put up with (attributed to Churchill by the New York Times, Feb. 28, 1944)

Let's suppose that the correspondent's story isn't completely apocryphal and that Churchill actually made such an annotation. My suspicion is that Churchill saw the 1942 version appearing in the Strand Magazine (to which he frequently contributed) and created his own variation on the theme. If he wrote "with which I will not put up," then the line would still retain some of the derisive flavor of the original anecdote, since there is still at least one inappropriately fronted preposition, with. But the version in the New York Times does not feature any preposition-fronting, thus defeating the purpose of the joke (which ridicules the convoluted steps that bad writers take to avoid sentence-final prepositions).

Presaging modern spellchecker-generated errors, someone at the Times apparently committed an editorial hypercorrection. I would surmise that the offending editor thought that the point of the squib was merely Churchill's strong castigation of the "tedious nonsense" in ministerial minutes. The relative clause was seen as secondary, rather than the entire point of the remark, and thus was subject to redaction. The final sentence, mentioning the underscoring of up ("just to make his intention plain," in the Times version), then appears to be nothing more than added emphasis on Churchill's part, rather than driving home the witticism.

It is of course deeply ironic that an anecdote about editorial intrusion (especially in other tellings involving an overeager Foreign Office clerk or book editor) should itself be foiled by an intrusive editor. But even when the prepositional humor is maintained, there are other possibilities for spoiling the anecdote. Here is the earliest example I've found where Churchill is credited with the canonical form, "up with which I will not put":

Los Angeles Times, Apr. 7, 1946, p. C11
"Things About Which Women Are Talking"
Women are passing along a bon mot in the current issue of Counter-Point. Winston Churchill, after laboring through the circumlocution and trailing prepositions of a governmental report, exploded, "This is the sort of stilted English up with which I will not put."

As with the 1944 version, Churchill is bemoaning the tortured prose of official government reports. (Churchill was much in the news at the time as a proponent of "Basic English.") Though we get the joke properly told this time, the context is confusing. Why would Churchill make his comment after laboring through text with "trailing prepositions"? Surely the whole point of the quip is to draw attention to the unnecessary contortions a writer goes through to avoid trailing prepositions. (And as a further bit of delicious irony, the rubric of this column features a daintily fronted preposition: "Things About Which Women Are Talking"!)

Finally, in September 1946, the anecdote appeared in its more familiar form, as a battle between Churchill and a "stuffy Foreign Office secretary" over the editing of the Prime Minister's speeches (note that the story must have been set before Churchill and the Conservatives lost the general election in July 1945):

Washington Post, Sep. 30, 1946, p. 12
"Town Talk," by Eva Hinton
Latest Churchill story going the rounds has to do with a stuffy young Foreign Office secretary who 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!"

In this telling, the anecdote resembles the original 1942 version in the Strand Magazine where the line is credited to an unnamed writer. Gone is Churchill's opprobrium toward the "tedious nonsense" of ministerial minutes; his ire is directed instead toward a would-be improver of his own prose (though Churchill's "red ink" remains constant). It would seem, then, that the story that inspired Churchill to make his purported 1944 annotation in the first place came to be credited to Churchill himself by 1946. And this would be the version that would become more firmly linked to Churchill in later years, through Gowers' Plain Words and other promulgators of the story. I can't help thinking that Churchill would have been quite happy to get credit for the original anecdote, since it was more memorable (and less confusing to editors!) than his actual comment of 1944.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 27, 2005 01:22 AM