The Phrasals and the Had Had

by Mark L. Levinson

I wonder if I was first or if Mark Brader was first.  Several years ago I noticed an item in Guinness about the sentence that ended with the longest string of prepositions.  The prize sentence was some variant of that chestnut about the child in the upstairs bedroom who says “What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?”  I wrote to Guinness with two objections.

My first objection was that the sentence ends with only one preposition — “for,” which has “what” as its object.  The word “up” isn’t a preposition because it has no object; it’s not up the stairs, not up the street, just up.  An adverb.

Similarly, “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put” — the famous parody of pomposity attributed in various forms to Winston Churchill — is not really the necessary consequence of avoiding a sentence-ending preposition.  “This is the sort of nonsense with which I will not put up” ends with an adverb.

Alternatively, some would say “put up” is less reasonably thought of as a verb and adverb than as a two-word verb or “phrasal verb,” because what it means is not a combination of the two words’ normal meanings.  Or even that “put up with” can end the sentence as a three-word phrasal verb because “put up with” has a meaning of its own that has nothing to do with putting someone up for the night, putting up or shutting up, or other “put up” meanings that don’t include the “with.”

There is much nebulousness to the notion of a phrasal verb, because it depends on the question of when a special application of a familiar meaning becomes a new meaning.  Wikipedia’s “Phrasal Verb” article, for example, explains that in the sentence “Work hard, and get your examination over,” we can see a meaning in “get over” that isn’t simply the combined meaning of the two words.  I think Wikipedia is wrong, because “get” can always mean “to cause to become” (get your car painted) and “over” can always mean “finished” (game over). 

Who cares what’s a phrasal verb and what isn’t?  In my experience, the only people who care are people looking for an excuse to end a sentence with a preposition.  And they’re wasting their time.  “Note that it is permissible to end a sentence with a preposition,” as Edward D. Johnson writes in The Handbook of Good English, “despite a durable superstition that it is an error.”  No phrasal verb necessary.

The second objection that I wrote to Guinness was there’s no end to the number of prepositions you can end a sentence with.  Start, for example, with “Who was that lady I saw you with?”  Imagine you see her later with a gentleman.  “Who was that gentleman I saw that lady I saw you with with?”  Imagine you next see the gentleman with a window washer.  “Who was that window washer I saw that gentleman I saw that lady I saw you with with with?”  And so on ad libidem.

Guinness didn’t answer me, but they dropped the item from the book.  Only recently I read at that one Mark Brader wrote a similar objection and did receive an answer.  Brader implied that it is possible to add “for” any number of times at the end of the Guinness sentence by using quotation marks, starting with “What did you say that the sentence with the most prepositions at the end was ‘What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of about “Down Under” up for?’ for?”  (Yes, Guinness had even included “about ‘Down Under” in the sentence, though only “about” is a preposition in that phrase.)

Guinness replied to politely to Brader, but I think that Brader was cheating.  I’m reminded of a challenge you may have run across:  how to punctuate a statement like “Jack where John had had had had had had had had had had had the teacher's approval.”  The answer is something like “Jack, where John had had ‘had had,’ had had ‘had.’  ‘Had had’ had had the teacher’s approval.”  Relying on quotation marks as they do, these tricks are deeply pointless.  Once quotation marks are in the game, anyone who feels like it can present a sentence like “Jack mistakenly wrote ‘had had had had had had,’ to the teacher’s surprise” or “I don’t know what John wrote ‘for for for for for’ for.”

If you were ever amused by the “out of up for” gag, the “up with which” gag, or the “had had” gag, and I’ve ruined your amusement, then this column has served its purpose.

Questions and comments are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.