Les verbes à particule anglais, et la célèbre citation qui n’est pas par Churchill.

  • 2004-12-15
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Putting this entry in the category “inspiration” feels quite wrong. This hasn’t been a good week, on several counts, and I’ve been suffering from a painful lack of inspiration. However, that’s precisely the reason it has to be categorised thus.

In times like these, reading remains, and there may be a pinch of escapism in it.

The blogosphere, of course,relentlessly produces text, thought, and gems up with which it’s hard to keep.

OK, I shouldn’t have written the last sentence. It is ungrammatical. The reason it has crept up during the interaction between my fingertips and the keyboard is that I’ve been intrigued with two posts by Geoffrey Pullum on Language Log (easily one of the three blogs I enjoy most). In A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put, he chastises “Winston Churchill” for “cheating”: “Churchill” (ok, let’s call this person Speaker from now on) is the supposed utterer of the sentence “This is the kind of English up with which I will not put” (or some variation), thus rebuking a meddlesome copyeditor who, following the “rule” that English sentences aren’t allowed to end in a preposition, supposedly (again) corrected the great man’s grammar in some book draft or other. The second one, in reality a guest post by Benjamin G. Zimmer, A misattribution no longer to be put up with, reveals that the sentence isn’t by Churchill at all.

I’m intrigued because, like, is there anything wrong with either of that? Benjamin Zimmer’s post is certainly interesting, but the post title kindof implies that the bon mot shouldn’t be presented as Churchill’s. But … it’s an anecdote, and as such I, for one, never expected the real Mr Churchill to have uttered the sentence in the first place. With anecdotes it’s a bit like with what my mathematical friends said about mathematical theorems: If a theorem is named after a mathematician, it is almost certain that this mathematician wasn’t the first one to prove it.

As for the cheating charge, why shouldn’t Speaker have? The sentence does, after all, show that the “rule” against sentence-ending prepositions is fabricated and fallacious. Wrong, if you prefer. If the effect is achieved because this particular sequence, put [vb.] + up [verbal particle, or preposition-that-doesn’t-take-an-object] + with [preposition that does take an object], just like keep up with can’t be taken apart and rearranged all over the sentence, more power to Speaker! He or she found a case the mysterious editor couldn’t do away with.

Update: Thinking about this post from a few hours ago, originally, I felt it didn’t accurately reflect the enjoyment and enlightenment I draw from Prof. Pullum’s blog entries. Yesterday’s She’s they until you acknowledge her, on singular-antecedent they is another gem. It reminded me of example N° 15 in Garnier and Guimier’s L’épreuve de linguistique au CAPES et à l’agrégation d’anglais#[1], which consists in commenting the pronoun gender choice in the following excerpt from The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky by S. Crane#[2]:

The dog of the barkeeper of the Weary Gentlemen saloon had not appreciated the advance of events. He yet lay dozing in front of his master’s door. At sight of the dog, the man paused and raised his revolver humorously. At sight of the man, the dog sprang up and walked diagonally away, with a sullen head, and growling. The man yelled, and the dog broke into a gallop. As it was about to enter an alley, there was a loud noise, a whistling, and something spat on the ground directly before it. The dog screamed, and, wheeling in terror, galloped headlong in a new direction.

Like in the singular-they article, a trait of the pronoun that would appear to be uniquely determined by the antecedent (here, gender; there, number) changes while the antecedent itself stays the same. And in both cases it happens for a good reason.

[1]: For non-French readers it’s necessary to explain that this is an exam-preparation guide for the linguistics (otherwise called, grammar, or linguistic text analysis) part of the two exams offered in France to qualify as an English teacher in the public educational system. In the easiest case, this part of the exam consists of giving an intelligent commentary (informed mostly by semantics, as far as I can make out) on some passage like the one cited, with particular emphasis on a particular feature of grammar. I took the lower of the two exams in 2002, but two years later, was forced to give up on the profession for the time being. Or maybe the profession gave up on me. The bits of linguistics training I got from studying for the CAPES#[3] are something I hold dear, though.

[2]: No, I don’t know this book. I just copied the attribution.

[3]: Since I have no formal instruction in English (language, literature or civilisation), having prepared myself for it entirely on my own, the piece of paper that says I once passed is the something to hold on to as well. Some have suggested I try for the higher-level exam next time (it wouldn’t be entirely out of my reach even though quite a bit harder). It would qualify me for teaching up to the (roughly, undergraduate) post-secondary level.