Grammar up with which I will not put: prepositions at the end of a sentence

Winston Churchill, British prime minister during World War II

That is grammar up with which I will not put

Winston Churchill never said or wrote these words, which are frequently attributed to him (but since we are only a couple of weeks past the anniversary of Victory in Europe, why not have a photo of the inspirational wartime leader?). The joke quote seems to have originated in the West Sussex Gazette of 31 July 1941 and the first attribution of it to Churchill actually seems to have happened in a Melbourne newspaper, according to Quote Investigator. So shame on my home town!

The joke relies on the difference in functions of prepositions: to join nouns or to modify verbs by creating phrasal verbs. The idea that a preposition is a bad word to end a sentence with comes from the understanding of prepositions of words that join things together: if the function of prepositions is to join two nouns, then a preposition cannot end a sentence because the join would not be made; it would be incomplete. If we think of the noun as a shipping container, then a preposition could be thought of as the trailer that connects to the rest of the sentence. If the preposition is at the end, and not followed or joined to another word, our container, or noun, is stranded.

Shipping container on a disconnected trailer, analagous to a noun and preposition not connected to another noun

A noun and preposition without another noun is like a shipping container on an unconnected trailer

But ‘rule’ is very like the ‘rule’ that you cannot start a sentence with And or But: it can be broken when you understand what you are doing. Prepositions do not only connect nouns; they also change the meaning of verbs. When our preposition is modifying a verb, it follows the verb and does not necessarily have anything to follow it or to connect with it in a sentence. When a preposition is being used as part of phrasal verb, there is no problem with the preposition being the final word in the sentence.

  • That is grammar I will not put with up.
  • When you know what you are doing, having a preposition at the end of sentence is certainly something you can put up with.

‘To put up with’ is a phrasal verb, meaning ‘to tolerate’, created with not one but two prepositions: up and with. Rewriting the sentence to avoid having the prepositions at the end takes them away from the verb that they are modifying and that in fact makes the joke sentence harder to understand, and less grammatical. Winston Churchill had both a strong wit and a strong grasp of grammar: although he never came up with the words attributed to him about prepositions, he probably would have enjoyed the joke.

In summary, when a preposition is acting as part of a phrasal verb, it can end a sentence.

Phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs

A final note on  phrasal verbs: there are some phrasal verbs where  you cannot separate the preposition from the verb, and some where you can. Some grammar experts  call the ones that can’t be separated ‘prepositional verbs’. Here are some examples for us think over:

  • I need to think over the problem.
  • I need to think it over.
  • I need to think about the problem.
  • I need think about it.
Rodin's sculpture The Thinker, to illustrate the phrasal verbs to think about and to think over

Thinking over the difference between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs

Both think over and think about consist of a verb and preposition. But think about belongs to the group of phrasal verbs where the verb and preposition cannot be split. The other interesting about this group is that there is always a noun that follows the preposition, so the preposition is functioning more like the expected way it should, in joining a noun to something.

Does the distinction between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs? In practice, probably not, but it is worth being aware of the idea that sometimes you can put words between the verb and its modifying preposition and sometimes you can’t. There is no logic to when you can and when you can’t, as phrasal verbs (and prepositional verbs) mostly create idiomatic expressions, the only one to know which is which is to learn them. If you grow up speaking English, your brain will absorb these so that you don’t have to think about them; if you are trying to learn English as a foreign language, this is not much help, I know.

I hope I’ve given you something to think about!

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Images: Winston Churchill from;  shipping containter from Gary Hemme; The Thinker, Rodin, from rawpixel

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