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Giving a v-sign to language pendants

Winston Churchill gives his famous 'V' sign during a visit to Bradford in December 1942 - Credit: Imperial War Museums via Getty I

When it comes to people who try to police our grammar, Winston Churchill (apparently) knew how to deal with them

There is a grammar joke about Winston Churchill which is well known, even if it probably isn’t true.

When a draft of an upcoming speech of his was circulated to aides, one of them, a self-appointed grammar ‘expert’, criticised the text, complaining that Churchill had ‘incorrectly’ ended a sentence with a preposition. (Pedants like that want us to say, not “That’s the hill I walked up” but “That’s the hill up which I walked”.) 

Churchill then supposedly responded: “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!”

This is amusing for a couple of reasons. First, there is obviously nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition.

The only correct response to some pedant telling you that you should not do so is: “Why not?”

It is perfectly grammatical in English to end a sentence with a preposition, and all native speakers do it, even those who claim it is ‘wrong’.

Secondly, while up with which I will not put is quite clearly not grammatical, explaining why it isn’t requires a certain amount of grammatical expertise.

The word up can of course be a preposition, as in up the hill, but in Churchill’s riposte it isn’t. To put up with is a phrasal verb where up is operating, not as a preposition, but as an adverbial particle.

With is the preposition, so pedants could, if they wanted to, recommend “This is the sort of nonsense with which I will not put up”, but I hope readers will agree that this really doesn’t sound very good either.

Pedantry was also the source of one of the best remembered jokes by the African American comedian Reginald D. Hunter. Hunter related how he got into conversation with a local woman in a pub somewhere in England.

Learning that he was a comedian, she asked if he knew about Tommy Cooper. Hunter replied “He dead.” According to him, the woman then responded “I must correct your grammar – it’s ‘he died’.”

“Yes”, answered Hunter, “first he died, now he dead”. This aspect of Reginald’s grammar is of considerable interest. Like millions of other black Americans, Hunter is a speaker of what linguists often call African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

This variety can be very different from the dialects spoken by most white people in America.

There is, tragically, a long history in the USA of the dialect, totally unjustifiably, being looked down on and discriminated against – just another aspect of the way in which African Americans themselves have been looked down on and discriminated against.

Reginald D. Hunter’s dialect, however, is a perfectly normal variety of language with its own grammatical structures, one of which is illustrated in he dead.

In constructions like she busy and he my father, AAVE has no copula – no verb ‘to be’. And you can see why: it is totally unnecessary, since the meaning is entirely clear without it.

Many of the languages of the world have this same, very sensible construction. In Russian, he is dead is on mertv (literally ‘he dead’). In Turkish the structure is the same: o öldü.

AAVE also has the ability to make a grammatical distinction using the copula which is not available in most other English dialects, including Standard English.

There is an important difference of meaning in AAVE between she busy and she be busy. In this dialect, you say she busy right now, but usually she be busy.

The point is that sentences with be refer to an event which is repeated or occurs habitually: this is technically called ‘habitual be’.

It would be ungrammatical in AAVE to say she be my mother, because that would imply she was your mother only from time to time. The correct formulation is she my mother. This is another illustration of why linguistic variation should be a source of fascination, not of ignorant and arrogant pedantic condemnation.

Ignorant

Ignorant comes from ignore, from Latin ignorare ‘to not know’. This word was made up from in-  ‘not’ and gnorare ‘to know’. The adjective ignorant first appeared in English in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of he 14th century. Agnostic is derived from Ancient Greek an– ‘not’ and gnosis, ‘knowledge’.