En vedette

jeudi 18 mars 2010

Churchill, Shakespeare and Cervantes (English)

Le présent billet a été rédigé par Jonathan Goldberg, que je remercie.

First trivia question: In what field did Winston Churchill, the famous British statesman and Prime Minister of Britain during the Second World War, win the Nobel Prize in 1953?

Second trivia question: What did Shakespeare and Cervantes have in common, beyond the fact that they were famous playwrights?

Third trivia question: Who was the first person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature?

The answers are given at the end of this article.

There is a rule of English grammar to the effect that sentences should not end with a preposition. Language purists would claim, for example, that it is bad English to write “That is the pen that I wrote the letter with”, and that to avoid putting the preposition “with” at the end of the sentence, one should write “That is the pen with which I wrote the letter.” Churchill showed his disdain for that rule when he humorously stated: “That is a rule up with which I will not put.” He was making the point that the construction favoured by purists could sometimes produce a ridiculous result.

Today more than ever, the rule is seldom adhered to. I would be tempted to say that it is more honoured in the breach than the observance. That expression, which is itself controversial, was created by Shakespeare in HAMLET:

But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.

That expression is widely used today in a sense that is different from its original meaning. Shakespeare in fact intended to have Hamlet say that it would be honorable (and therefore advisable) to have the custom breached (not complied with) than to have it observed. But over the years the expression came to be used to refer to a custom, practice, belief or rule that is more often breached (or contravened) than it is honored. That would be true of the rule relating to the place of a preposition in a sentence.

A British video series, Yes Minister, and its successor, Yes Prime Minister, transmitted by BBC radio and BBC Television in 1980-1984, displayed the best of British comic acting. Both series provide a spoof both of the workings of British politics and of the use of highfalutin English. In a segment entitled “The Key”, the Prime Minister, played by Paul Eddington, admonishes his cabinet secretary, played by Nigel Hawthorne, who has just used the expression More honour'd in the breach than the observance , for his use of pompous language and for destroying “the most beautiful language in the world, the language of Shakespeare” . Readers are recommended to watch all three segments, using the following links : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dxi5mokoOP8&feature=related, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxqn_gubnL8&feature=related and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDzjZf2JnBY&feature=related.

Here are the answers to the three questions above:

1. In what field did Winston Churchill win the Nobel Prize in 1953?

Literature, "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values". His acceptance speech, read out by his wife, may be found at:


2. What did Shakespeare and Cervantes have in common?

They both died on 23 April 1616.

3. Who was the first person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature?

René-François-Armand Prudhomme (1839–1907), a French poet and essayist, was the first person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1901.

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