Some time ago, I wrote up a piece on why the reason why isn’t ungrammatical, no matter how much some grammarians despise it. But in that piece I ignored a related construction that leads to approximately as much head-shaking and teeth-grinding: the reason is because. If you noticed and had been wondering when I would tie this loose end, well, your day has come. And if you hadn’t noticed, well, that’s for the best.
Let’s start with the obligatory examples from everyday usage:
If you base your decisions about what’s grammatical on usage guides, then deciding whether these are ungrammatical is a no-brainer. All but one of the usage guides on my shelf object to it, and the one that doesn’t still suggests its usage be restricted. And among Internet grammarians, it seems everyone hates it. The best phrased put-down comes from Fowler’s Third:
“Though often defended, the type the reason … is because (instead of the reason … is that) aches with redundancy, and is still as inadmissible in Standard English as it was when H. W. Fowler objected to it in 1926.” (because, B5, pg. 100)
That end part is definitely right: it’s only as inadmissible as it was in 1926. And, as it turns out, it wasn’t inadmissible in Standard English in 1925. Here are a few examples from that time period, taken from the MWDEU entry on it:
“If the fellow who wrote it seems to know more of my goings and comings than he could without complicity of mine, the reason is because he is a lovely old boy and quite took possession of me while I was in Boston” [1915, Robert Frost]
“The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion-picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely the more simple and pleasant.” [1915, P.G. Wodehouse]
“… one of the reasons why I am not particularly well read today is because I have spent so large a part of the last twenty years rereading Dickens and Jane Austen.” [1932, Alexander Woollcott]
Two of these examples come from letters rather than edited writing, but I find it difficult to accept any definition for Standard English that leaves out Frost, Woollcott, and Wodehouse. (Just to clarify, I’m not saying that the reason is because isn’t informal, only that it isn’t nonstandard.) It goes back to at least Francis Bacon in 1625. If you remain unconvinced that this is a standard expression, the MWDEU entry is chock-a-block with examples from accomplished writers, so read through it until you’re satisfied.
Lots of people, including well-known and respected writers, use the reason is because. But, one might argue, maybe there’s some mass delusion of grammaticality that’s going on. Maybe it really is ungrammatical, even though so many people use it, and it should still be opposed.* Let’s consider that hypothesis by analyzing the two main reasons why it’s supposed to be unacceptable.
The first argument, I have to say, is pretty cute. The reason, obviously, is a noun phrase.** A phrase starting with because is not a noun phrase. Is is a linking verb, and thus its subject and object ought to match, but they can’t match in the reason is because. QED.
More like BS. Linking verbs don’t require grammatical identity between the two constituents being linked; the reason was unknown is perfectly fine despite a noun phrase and adjective being linked. Some writers formulate their objection a bit more carefully, and note that the predicate can be either a noun phrase or an adjective phrase, but that a clause starting with because isn’t either. But this can’t be right either. Such a restriction would also rule out the reason is that, because the that-phrase would be a clause.
In an attempt to keep refining the difference so that the thing we don’t want allowed isn’t, one might object that that-phrases can be sort of like nouns sometimes. So let’s just cut to the end, with the coup de grace from Evans 1957. It is because is uncontroversially accepted (and even used by Fowler, who’s opposed to the reason is because) despite the supposed mislinking of NP and clause. As an aside, it’s worth noting that, according to the MWDEU, this mismatch-objection is a recent one, apparently developed post hoc to explain the distaste for the reason is because, rather than the original source of the distaste.
The second objection is a golden oldie: redundancy. I already quoted Fowler’s Third on this, and almost all of the complaints I read mention redundancy somewhere. Back when I discussed reason why, I pointed out that redundancy isn’t inherently bad, because language is a noisy system. A mild amount of redundancy improves the likelihood of the message being transmitted correctly. The problem is when there’s too much redundancy, slowing down the rate of communication. (A common problem in children’s conversations, for instance, or a boring person’s stories.) Using because instead of that here doesn’t slow anything down, though — aside from the couple hundred milliseconds the additional syllable might cost the speaker — so I’m pretty unsympathetic to this complaint as well.
In a similar vein, some claim that because because usually means something like “for the reason that”, you’re really saying “The reason is for the reason that” when you say the reason is because. But this sort of redundancy comes from applying an inappropriate analysis; such “redundancy” can be found in non-redundant contexts as well. Suppose we have the following sentence:
(2a) The boxer fights today.
Now let’s replace boxer with its definition in the Oxford English Dictionary:
(2b) The person who boxes or fights with his fists fights today.
Now let’s replace boxes with its definition:
(2c) The person who fights with fists or fights with his fists fights today.
Either “The boxer fights today” is extremely redundant, or simple-minded definition replacement isn’t a good argument. (Furthermore, if you see a word being consistently used in a way that doesn’t fit its standard meaning, then that meaning is inappropriate for that use of the word.)
I have some other stuff to say on this, but you’ve already been quite polite to have stuck around this long, and I’ve hit the major points, so I’ll stop here and resume at some later point.
Summary: The reason is because is a standard English phrase, one coming from the pen of good writers (Bacon, Frost, Wodehouse) for 400 years. It’s grammatically fine, and its supposed redundancy is at worst mild. You’re welcome to use the reason is that instead, as both are standard, but there’s no good reason to oppose the reason is because.
*: Of course, if most speakers of a specific language (or dialect, or register within a language/dialect) consistently use and understand a construction, then it is grammatical in that language, regardless of whether it seems like it should be. But in case you (or someone arguing with you) don’t believe that, let’s continue.
**: This is not, technically speaking, obvious — nor necessarily true. Most generative grammarians, I believe, would regard this as a determiner phrase headed by the, rather than a noun phrase headed by reason. But “noun phrase” is good enough for jazz/blogs.