Friday, January 23, 2009

Up With Which I Will Not Put

One of the grammar rules that many of us remember from our elementary school days is the one that says, "A sentence cannot end in a preposition." Attempts to follow this mythic rule (Grammar Girl calls it "grammar myth number one") often lead to some pretty twisted relative clauses, including those relative clauses involving whom. Here are two examples, one attributed to Winston Churchill (though some dispute that he ever wrote or said this), and one I heard just yesterday.

This is something up with which I will not put.

This is something I'm not gonna put up with.

If the first sentence doesn't send your head spinning, then I am sure the second sentence is surely setting off slang alarm bells. Let's back up for just a moment and refresh last week's post; what are relative clauses anyway, and why should you care about them? Relative clauses are dependent clauses (they cannot stand alone as sentences), and they provide additional information about a noun. Relative clauses feature both a subject and a verb that are grammatically INDEPENDENT from the main clause. Take this sentence for example:

I went over to my friend's house, which is located on Mason Street.

The relative clause provides additional information about the friend's house, but the friend's house is not the subject of the main clause, which is "I." In other words, relative clauses can have nothing to do with the main subject of a sentence.

Secondly, and this is where many "whomists" start sounding the alarm bells, the relative clause is introduced by a relative pronoun. As I noted in last week's post, the relative pronouns in English are

who, whom, that, which, whose, where, when, and why

Once you select a relative pronoun, all you need to do is finish out the clause. This is where the No Preposition at the End of a Sentence Brigade chimes in. Just like regular sentences, relative clauses cannot end with a preposition, they say. The best solution is to take the preposition and place at the beginning of the clause. So we have constructions like:

To whom it may concern
With whom I was speaking
Upon which I was standing
Up with which I will not put

These types of constructions are quite common in German. But as I said in the last post, they sound quite formal to my non-Churchillian, American ears. Guessing from the readership commentary, the "whoms" and "with whoms" sound too highbrow for most of our sensibilities.

Reader question of the week: What is the weirdest preposition + relative clause combination you have ever heard? Send it in and let us all have a laugh. For my part, here is a YouTube video of a Ben Affleck Saturday Night Live skit that satirized Keith Olbermann, one of America's more excitable news commentators.



Anonymous said...

The way I heard it: When cautioned by an assistant about ending a sentence with a preposition, Churchill replied: "This is errant pedantry up with which I will not put."

Anonymous said...

I think we do not do our children a favor when we do not hold them to a higher standard. I've always been disgusted with the attitude of "Oh, one speaks that way anymore, so we'll lower our standards because they're too stupid to learn the correct way."
Then why not give up and all start speaking Ebonics? Or "Mrs. Wells, I gotta go to the bafroom. Can he come wif me?" As long as I'm teaching, I will continue to stress proper grammar. My kids can learn it and I won't give up, regardless of how things are spoken at home. Someone will get -- not all, but SOMEONE will really get it.

Anonymous said...

To the teacher stressing proper grammar, as much as I agree with you that children can and should learn proper grammar, I don't know if children should be ridiculed for speaking dialects. For one thing, "proper english" is such a subjective notion. And really though, there's no denying that different environments call for differing levels of formality. Insisting that a child, or anyone else for that matter, speak in only formal english, is like asking that they willfully wear a kick-me sign.

Anonymous said...

As an ESL teacher teaching college level foreign students, I have to say that I disagree with the anonymous posting dated April 22. While I'm not advocating the use of snobbery or embarrassing children in front of their peers by speaking "proper" English, there is something to be said for speaking English using correct grammar. (I believe it lends itself well when having to adopt proper writing conventions for essay writing.) Oral English is being battered as it is with the likes of songs and movies. Why not educate our youth to recognize the difference?

Bob said...

"Up with which" is complete nonsense and incorrect. It was said falsely to try to make out that the prepositions at the start thing is incorrect.

Read this blog.

Anonymous said...

@Bob - How can you take seriously a paper on grammar by someone who could not be bothered with constructing correct examples. For instance; 'With how many interruptions am I supposed to put up?' Would be better represented by; 'Up with how many interruptions am i suppose to put.'

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher, and I believe learning English well is important. The problem with a couple of comments here is the assumption that the "rule" against ending a sentence with a preposition is not a valid rule. You are actually doing your students a disservice when you expect them to write an speak in this manner. As the editors of the Oxford Dictionaries state: There’s no necessity to ban prepositions from the end of sentences. Ending a sentence with a preposition is a perfectly natural part of the structure of English.

Unknown said...

". . . put up with" is good informal spoken English. It gets the speaker's point across to the listener. The goal of communicating an idea quickly and effectively in the situation is achieved.
Our efforts to promote the use of Standard English in writing and appropriate levels of formality in spoken English can be well-served if we acknowledge the differences when we're instructing and correcting our students.
Diction is important in speech. Many students seem unable to hear-- and use-- the -s endings on nouns and verbs that inflect nouns and present tense verbs to distinguish singular from plural; they seem to miss -ed endings on past tense verbs and past participles. Present participles end in -ing. Infinitives begin with 'to.'
This is news. "We are supposed to say 'I am going to write like this,' instead of 'I'm gonna this out.'"
I believe this leads to many grammatical errors in students' written work.
We do well, I believe, when we uphold the standard of appropriate, properly spoken English in school, and remind students that when writing, they have the chance to think, to clarify and to revise.
Appropriate vocabulary can help eliminate grammatical conundrums.
"I shall not suffer, I shall not endure, I shall not tolerate any further interruptions."
I'm no going to allow any more, either.
"Aint gonna put up w/ nun a this s**t"
No offense. That's the way they text it!

Anonymous said...

American English is a descriptive language. Therefore, our grammar rules apply more to written works than common speech.

arandomharvest said...

This all makes me wonder how far down we can dumb the English language . . .

I have found that children rise to the level expected of them; if we dumb things down, that's as far as they will go. It's our job to equip them for adult life, not to make things so 'easy' that they are unable to apply for a job, never mind keep one.

My Mum taught me to read before I was four (and not with lessons, either!). My sons were home-schooled and the younger at 11 years was reading at a grade 11 level. We read to them every day, but not only "children's" books. They heard 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit' for the first time when the oldest was under four and the youngest was a couple of months from being born. I read this series to them yearly for many years, then they read it for themselves. They both have great English skills from hearing not only these, but other well-written books.

In our family my siblings and I have experienced with our children that they have done best in school when challenged, not when things came easily. I believe that we serve our children best when we take the time to know what they are capable of and then expect them to do their best. Obviously some children are less capable, but everyone still can do their best.

I am not advocating 'teaching' that relies on force, but rather 'educating' which relies on excellent teaching. I had many teachers myself, as we moved often; of approximately 40 or more teachers, three stand out in my memory as inspiring and generally excellent. They challenged me and did not accept less than my best work. I will be forever grateful to them for that, and for loving their subjects so much that I became 'infected' with that same love. I was very lucky!