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No, no, no, no, no

I reprint a letter to the editor from one Rod Gelatt to the Columbia Missourian.

The letter

I applaud the plan, announced in Sunday's Columbia Missourian, to invite readers of the online Missourian to "....find and report errors in online content." But why stop there? How about expanding the challenge to include such goofs in the print version, as well?

Many of us still rely on the inked page product for our morning news fix, and we too cringe when we come across singular nouns mixed with plural verbs, sentences ending with prepositions, mis-use of the subjective "I" when the sentence calls for the objective "me," or the typographical relocation of an historic landmark.

Awarding readers of the online Missourian with points, and possible prizes, for pointing out errors, but not dangling such prizes in front of us print version readers, makes as much sense as the Missouri General Assembly outlawing texting while driving ONLY among teenagers.

And, by the way, in the announcement of the invitation for us to become grammar police, I found two errors: "....who wants to generously point out..." (splitting an infinitive) and "Spell check won't help you when you have the wrong word to start with" (ending sentence with preposition).

As Sir Winston Churchill is said to have remarked: "This is something up with which I will not put."

The commentary

The Missourian explains in a note that Mr. Gelatt is a professor emeritus of journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism. It was at that point that I began to tear my garments and cast about for ashes to rub into my head.

Adopting once more my more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, I remind you that there is absolutely nothing wrong with splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, that both are arrant superstitions with no foundation in the idiomatic usages of the language.

And, shifting into that annoying higher pitch that you have heard so often before, I have to point out that it is highly unlikely that Sir Winston ever uttered that remark about prepositions, and, further, that this letter is one more piece of evidence about the prevalence of bogus authorities, because a major university gave tenure to someone who appears to have spent years, perhaps decades, standing before the impressionable young and FILLING THEIR HEADS WITH NONSENSICAL PRACTICES THAT I HAVE TO BREAK THEM OF. AND DON’T YOU SAY A DAMN THING TO ME ABOUT THE PREPOSITION AT THE END OF THE PREVIOUS SENTENCE.

Where are my pills?


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:31 AM | | Comments (16)


How do you know Churchill didn't make that remark? Perhaps he made it in jest, between worrying about the Blitz and the invasion of Europe? Meanwhile, might I suggest a wee dose of Zoloft or bourbon, whichever better suits you? Or a new hat for the hurrican season?

I'm with John on this tirade. He somehow manages to keep them down to only a few per annum, when he could easily publish several such daily.

Well-meaning but outdated (or never clear on the concept to begin with) fussbudgets such as Professor Gelatt need to retire, and none too quickly.

And my, but what a vat of worms the Missourian has opened, not least of which it has caused Mac to curse in his blog!

How do I know Churchill probably didn't say it?

Well, there's this:

And never mind the people who think that George Bernard Shaw or Mark Twain said it.

And, contrary to the good prof, whoever DID say "up with which" was suggesting that props-at-the-end was okay.

John, if it's any consolation, this is not what's taught in editing courses at Missouri anymore!

Dear me, John! That rant was almost worthy of a prescriptivist.

Churchill was certainly witty enough to have said it, even if he did not coin it.

Mark Twain it was, I believe, who also teased with: "A preposition is something you should never end a sentence with."

My mother attributed the quote to Winston Churchill as follows:

A WWII censor was reviewing one of Mr. Churchill's letters and found a sentence ending in a preposition. He wrote a note to Mr. Churchill chastising him for this.

". . . shall not put!" was Churchill's brilliant reply.

Sid Smith's comment is the most salient - reading the letter I wanted to jump up and down and scream "you missed the ENTIRE POINT!" Whether Churchill said it or not, the "nonsense" he is said not have countenanced was the specious rule about prepositions at the end of sentences! That story doesn't prove your point, peevish prof, it contradicts it! And in all those years of repeating it ad nauseum to yet another group of students, that never occurred to you? Arrrggg, I need some of those pills.

Yes, we need Grammar Hulk to SMASH these myths once and for all.

And yes, what Sid said.

Good to see that Mr Gelatt is apparently a former winner of the McIntyre Professorship. Not again, I imagine.

I thought the professor's letter was sarcasm, even in its supposed grammar rules. Is that too generous a read?

Well, to answer his question, clearly the online version can be corrected. The print version can't. So why invite people to point out its errors? It's the difference between telling someone they have a smudge on their nose and a stain on their jacket.

Then there's the story of the child who asks his father, who has come to tuck him in, "What did you bring that book I didn't want to be read to out of up for?" Google says (via an Amazon review) that it was in a letter from E.B. White demonstrating how to end a sentence with five prepositions.

(There is a reason to tell a paper about correctable errors in the print version, so it can be corrected in print, and in the paper's archives. But that doesn't matter for things that don't require corrections, such as grammatical errors even if they really are errors.)

And one more thing - regardless of who said what and what their point was when they said it, how would Mr Gelatt suggest "correcting" "when you have the wrong word to start with" so that "with" isn't the last word? That is to say, what word does he imagine to be the object of "with"? Does he want the phrase jettisoned from English altogether, replaced perhaps by "in the first place"? Or is it okay if you just move it to an earlier slot in the sentence, still objectless but not last?

Either way, he's a crank.

John, what a pleasure to read your rant. As the author of the Show-Me the Errors column, it was pure pleasure to be so gallantly defended. Many blessings to you and your grammatical heart.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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