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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:

(1a) Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said the reason is because we are too busy dealing with the unimportant things […]
(1b) No, and the reason is because we don’t control the hiring needs of our clients.

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.

[Portrait of John Adams.]

John Adams, second President of the U.S. and user of both the reason why and the reason is because.

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.

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If English words were Norse gods, perhaps than would be the best candidate to play the role of Loki, the trickster god.* It causes confusion not only due to its similarity with then, but also by raising the question of what case the noun phrase it governs should have. Of course, there’s no confusion if you are a brilliant grammaticaster, as in this example from a list of peeves:

12. I/Me: We had several different takes on this, with one correspondent nailing it thus: “The correct choice can be seen when you finish the truncated sentence: He’s bigger than I am. ‘He’s bigger than me am’ actually sounds ridiculous and obviates the mistake.”**

Now, there’re two questions one should be asking of this explanation. First, can you just fill in the blank? By which I mean, does a sentence with ellipsis (the omission of words that are normally syntactically necessary but understood by context) necessarily have the same structure as a non-elided sentence? There are many different types of ellipsis, so this is a more complex question than I want to get into right now, but the short answer is no, and here’s a question-and-answer example:

Who drank my secret stash of ginger-grapefruit soda?
(1a) He/*Him drank it.
(1b) Him/*He.

(The asterisks indicate ungrammatical forms.) The second question to ask here is whether there even is an elision. We know that “He eats faster than I do” is a valid sentence, but does than necessarily trigger a clause after it? Could it be that “He eats faster than me” is not an incomplete version of the above structure but rather a different and complete structure?

This boils down to the question of whether than is strictly a conjunction (in which cases the conjoined things should be equivalent, i.e., both clauses) or can function as a preposition as well (in which case the following element is just a noun phrase, with accusative case from the preposition). It’s pretty easy to see that than behaves prepositionally in some circumstances, pointed out in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, via Language Log:

(2a) He’s inviting more people than just us.
(2b) I saw no one other than Bob.

But this prepositional usage has become frowned upon, save for instances like (2a) & (2b) where it’s unavoidable. Why? Well, it’s an interesting tale involving the love of Latin and the discoverer of dephlogisticated air. It all starts (according to the MWDEU) with Robert Lowth, who in 1762 claimed, under the influence of Latin, that than is a conjunction and noun phrases following it carry an understood verb. The case marking (e.g., I vs. me) would then be assigned based on the noun phrase’s role in the implied clause. So Lowth’s grammar allows (3a) and (3b) but blocks (3c):

(3a) He laughed much louder than I (did).
(3b) He hit you harder than (he hit) me.

(3c) *He laughed much louder than me.

Lowth’s explanation was not without its wrinkles; he accepted than whom as standard (possibly due to Milton’s use of it in Paradise Lost), and worked out a post hoc explanation for why this prepositional usage was acceptable and others like (3c) weren’t.

Lowth’s explanation was also not without its dissenters. Joseph Priestley, a discoverer of oxygen, argued against it in his Rudiments of English Grammar (1772 edition). Priestley noted that the combination of a comparative adjective and than behaved prepositionally, and that good writers used it as such. Regarding the Lowthian argument against it, he wrote:

“It appears to me, that the chief objection our grammarians have to both these forms, is that they are not agreeable to the idiom of the Latin tongue, which is certainly an argument of little weight, as that language is fundamentally different from ours”

Another pro-prepositionist was William Ward, whose 1765 Essay on Grammar argues that than in phrases like to stand higher than or to stand lower than is akin to prepositions like above or below, and thus that the prepositional usage of than should be allowed. That’s not much of an argument, because semantically equivalent words and phrases don’t have to have the same syntax — consider I gave him it vs. *I donated him it. But then again, Lowth is basing his argument on a completely separate language, so this is a slight improvement.

The real key, of course, is usage, and the MWDEU notes that Priestey and Ward are backed by standard usage at the time. Visser’s Historical English Syntax strengths the case with examples of prepositional than from a variety of estimable sources, including the Geneva Bible (1560), Shakespeare (1601), Samuel Johnson (1751, 1759), and Byron (1804). And of course prepositional than continues in modern usage — why else would we be having this argument?

Despite the irrelevance of his argument, Lowth’s opinion has stuck through to the present day, reinvigorated by new voices repeating the same old line, unwilling to concede something’s right just because it’s never been wrong. It’s the MWDEU, not the commenter mentioned at the top, who nails it:

“Ward’s explanation [that both conjunctive and prepositional uses are correct] covered actual usage perfectly, but it was probably too common-sensical—not sufficiently absolutist—to prevail.”

So in the end, we’re left with this. Than I and than me are both correct, in most cases. Than I is often regarded as more formal, but interestingly it’s the only one that can be clearly inappropriate.*** Using the nominative case blocks the noun phrase from being the object of the verb. I can’t write The wind chilled him more than I to mean that the wind chilled me less than it chilled him.

Sometimes this can be used to disambiguate; I love you more than him is ambiguous while I love you more than he isn’t. This only matters for clauses with objects, and in general, these tend not to be ambiguous given context, so the benefit of disambiguation must be weighed against the potentially over-formal tone of the nominative case. (I, for instance, think the second sentence above sounds less convincing, even though it’s clearer, because who talks about love so stiltedly?)

I’m branching a little off topic here, but I’d like to conclude with a general point from Priestley, a few paragraphs after the quote above:

“In several cases, as in those above-mentioned, the principles of our language are vague, and unsettled. The custom of speaking draws one way, and an attention to arbitrary and artificial rules another. Which will prevail at last, it is impossible to say. It is not the authority of any one person, or of a few, be they ever so eminent, that can establish one form of speech in preference to another. Nothing but the general practice of good writers, and good speakers can do it.”

Summary: Than can work as a conjunction or a preposition, meaning that than I/he/she/they and than me/him/her/them are both correct in most situations. The latter version is attested from the 16th century to the present day, by good writers in formal and informal settings. The belief that it is unacceptable appears to be a holdover from Latin-based grammars of English.

*: Interestingly, and counter to the mythology I learned from the Jim Carrey movie The Mask, Wikipedia suggests that Loki may not be so easily summarized as the god of mischief.

**: I’m pretty sure the use of obviate is a mistake here. I can just barely get a reading where it isn’t, if thinking of the full version of the sentence causes you to avoid the supposed mistake. But I suspect instead that our correspondent believes obviate means “make obvious”, in which case, ha ha, Muprhy’s Law

***: Is there a case where than me is undeniably incorrect? I can’t think of one.

If you’re a native speaker of English, you are no doubt familiar with two meanings of since, which I’ll refer to as the “time” usage (1a) and the “reason” usage (1b):

(1a) Bob Patel has owned and operated the beach motel since 1983.
(1b) Carton says they will first escort his sister home, since he wants Mr. Cruncher to come with them […]

It’s odd, though, because I keep seeing people insist that only one of these common usages should be accepted. The first, as far as I’m aware, is accepted without complaint in all quarters. But the reason-usage certainly raises some hackles. For example, Jesse Kornbluth writes:

“SINCE and BECAUSE [are] not synonyms. ‘Since’ only refers to time: ‘Since August, he’s been in a funk.’ It cannot be used to suggest causality: ‘Since he’s depressed, we never call him.'”

I bolded the end of that complaint, because it’s obviously untrue; since certainly can be used to suggest causality. Kornbluth just did so. He means that it oughtn’t to be used in this way, of course, but for someone who subtitled his piece “Ten usage and grammar errors that could (or should) cripple a career”, Kornbluth is being surprisingly cavalier about his modals.

I digress. The point under debate here is whether since is acceptable in the reason-usage. Let’s start by noting a prominent writer whose career Kornbluth figures could or should have been crippled by his usage of since: Shakespeare. From The Comedy of Errors (via the OED):

Since that my beautie cannot please his eie,
Ile weepe what’s left away.”

And it’s not just Shakespeare. This reason-usage of since is antedated to the mid-1500s in the OED. Paul Brians and Bryan A. Garner (in the Chicago Manual of Style) track it back at least to the 14th century. So older English writers didn’t see a problem with it. Most modern writers don’t either; if they did, Kornbluth wouldn’t have anything to complain about.

In fact, though this is a persistent myth, I’m having a heck of a time finding major sources pushing for it. None of the usage guides on my shelf mention it, not even the ones that seem to be composed entirely of unanalyzed pet peeves. The MWDEU notes that this is a newer complaint, and one that seems to replace an older preference for since over because in this context.

I suspect the rule has come from stylebooks. The American Psychological Association’s stylebook, for instance, bans the reason-usage, and reports that this is the fifth most violated rule in their book. The Guardian also bans it, though the AP and Chicago Manuals don’t. The Economist appears to embrace it; I see no entry on since, and the guide itself employs the reason-usage in a discussion of stanch and staunch.

For stylebooks that do ban the reason-usage, the stated concern is primarily one of ambiguity between the time- and reason-usages. Sometimes that’s a valid concern. Compare these two sentences:

(2a) Since you left, I haven’t eaten; I’m still stuffed from our meal.
(2b) Since you left, I haven’t eaten; you took the forks with you.

These start off ambiguous, and in some situations that could be bad. But these ambiguities are pretty restricted. Since has to introduce a clause (not a time/date as in (1a)), and it generally has to be in a past tense (not the present as in (1b)). Furthermore, the effect of the ambiguity is often small. For instance, consider the ambiguity in this sentence from the MWDEU:

“In a second term, Carter might have moved the course of government toward the left, but since Reagan won the election the nation’s political movement has been toward the right”

I have a hard time distinguishing between the two meanings in this sentence. I suspect that since is intended to hit a midpoint between correlation and causation here, a sort of each-influenced-the-other situation; Reagan wouldn’t have been elected without some rightward shift, but the rightward shift wouldn’t have taken off without Reagan’s election, either. This fits with the intuitions of both the MDWEU and Garner, who note that since expresses causation more mildly than because does.

If you’re worried about the ambiguity, go ahead and avoid since in place of because. No one’s going to get mad at you for not using since. And when ambiguity is intolerable, maybe it makes sense to avoid it. But in general, English users haven’t encountered much trouble from this tiny ambiguity over all these centuries since its emergence. So don’t mistake it for a rule of English — and since it isn’t one, don’t judge others for using since in this way.

Summary: Since can be used with more or less the same meaning as because, although it’s less emphatic about the causal relationship. This can be slightly ambiguous, but only under certain conditions. You can avoid it if that concerns you, but it’s perfectly acceptable to use since in place of because.

I’m a little surprised that I’ve been blogging for almost five years now and never got around to talking about whether there’s a difference between the words disinterested and uninterested. I suppose I’ve avoided it because the matter has already been excellently discussed by many others, and I didn’t think I needed to add my voice to that choir. But now it’s become something of a glaring omission in my mind, so it’s time to fix that.

Let’s skip to the end and fill in the middle later: there is a difference, but in Mark Liberman’s words, it’s “emergent and incomplete, rather than traditional and under siege”. For some people, there’s a clean separation, for others an overlap. In the language in general, uninterested is limited to the “unconcerned” meaning, while disinterested can mean either “unconcerned” or “unbiased”.

How do two distinct meanings arise from such similar words? The problem lies at the root — namely, interest, which can be with (1a) or without (1b) bias:

(1a) I espouse a relatively dull orthodox Christianity and my interest in Buddhism is strictly cultural, aesthetic.
(1b) Upon consignment of your car, it’s in my interest to do everything possible to present your car to potential buyers.

So, when one adds a negative prefix to interest(ed), is it merely disavowing concern, or bias as well? I don’t know of any inherent difference between dis- and un- that would solve that question, and historically, no one else seemed to either. Though I don’t have relative usage statistics, the Oxford English Dictionary cites both forms with both meanings early in their history:

(2a) How dis-interested are they of all Worldly matters, since they fling their Wealth and Riches into the Sea. [c1677-1684]
(2b) The soul‥sits now as the most disinterested Arbiter, and impartial judge of her own works, that she can be. [1659]

(2c) He is no cold, uninterested, and uninteresting advocate for the cause he espouses. [1722]
(2d) What think you of uninterested Men, who value the Publick Good beyond their own private Interest? [1709]

But we both know that it’s no longer the 18th century, and I strongly suspect that you find (2d) to be a bit odd. The OED agrees, and marks this meaning (uninterested as “unbiased”) as obsolete. I looked over the first 50 examples of uninterested in COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) as well and found no examples like (2d). If it still exists, it’s rare or dialectal. Uninterested meaning “unconcerned” (2c) is, of course, alive and well.

So really, it’s not a question of whether people are confusing uninterested and disinterested, but rather a question of whether disinterested has two possible meanings. We’re certainly told that they are, and that it is imperative that disinterested be kept separate. For instance:

The constant misuse of disinterested for uninterested is breaking down a very useful distinction of meaning.”

Is it really? Suppose disinterested could just as easily take either meaning, and that this somehow rendered it unusable.* You’d still be able to use unbiased, impartial, objective, or unprejudiced for the one meaning, and indifferent, unconcerned, and uninterested for the other. We’re not losing this distinction at all.

Setting aside such misguided passion, let’s look at how disinterested actually is (and has been) used. As we saw in (2a) & (2b), disinterested started out being used for both meanings. This persisted, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), through the 19th century without complaint. Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary disinterestedly lists both senses, and it’s not until 1889 that MWDEU finds the first complaint. Opposition to disinterested for “unconcerned” appears to have steadily grown since then, especially in America.

But despite all the grousing, “unbiased” disinterested is hardly in dire straits. MWDEU’s searches found that 70% of all uses of disinterested in their files between 1934 and the 1980s were of this sense, and that this percentage actually increased during the 1980s. Furthermore, the MWDEU notes that the use of disinterested for “unconcerned” usually has a subtle difference from uninterested. Disinterested is often used to indicate that someone has lost interest as opposed to having been uninterested from the start.** This fits with other un-/dis- pairs, such as unarmed/disarmed.

Summary: Far from losing an existing distinction, it seems that we’re witnessing a distinction emerging. Uninterested is now restricted to an “unconcerned” meaning. Disinterested covers impartiality, but it also can take the “uninterested” meaning, often indicating specifically that interest has been lost. Because many people object to this sense of disinterested, you may want to avoid it if you’re uninterested in a fight. Will the distinction ever fully emerge, and the overlap be lost? Would that this desk were a time desk…


*: I think it goes without saying that having multiple meanings does not make a word unusable. In case it doesn’t, consider the much more confusing words fly, lead, and read.

**: Compare, for instance, I grew disinterested to I grew uninterested. I definitely prefer the former.

**: MWDEU notes that while the distributions of the two senses overlap, it’s more clear than people let on; “unbiased” disinterested tends to modify an abstract noun like love, whereas “unconcerned” disinterested tends to modify humans, and appear with in in tow.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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