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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.

Many grammarians go about their days maligning ambiguity. Don’t use while when you mean although, they say, because it’s ambiguous. Don’t use since in place of because either, they say. And so on. If they were right, then everyone would be confused by these two sentences:

(1a) Since I eat the right foods in the right combinations, I’m not focused on calorie restriction.
(1b) The Oscar-winning director tells the story of Venezuela’s “peaceful revolution” since Chavez came to power in 1998 […]

But people aren’t confused, because the clauses readily disambiguate since. (1a) uses the present habitual I eat, which prevents the “ever since” meaning from making sense. (1b) uses the past perfect, which would allow for either meaning, but there’s nothing in the sentence that a “because” clause could attach to, so the “ever since” meaning is the relevant one.

In general, these concerns about ambiguity are actually concerns about potential ambiguity, where someone intentionally misreading the sentence or not paying a lot of attention to it could misread it.* These situations usually don’t result in actual ambiguity for reasonable readers. That’s not to say there are never ambiguities, but only that these ambiguities are usually much less of a problem than prescriptivists claim.

(2) 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 instead.

When it is important that the reader gets exactly the meaning you desire, it is important to remove ambiguity, and at those times you’d want to, for instance, replace since in (2) with because or ever since. When the distinction is either obvious or unimportant, there’s no reason to change it. And the problem is that trying to make language completely unambiguous often comes at the cost of readability and comprehension:

(3) Upon such default, and at any time thereafter, Secured Party may declare the entire balance of the indebtedness secured hereby, plus any other sums owed hereunder, immediately due and payable without demand or notice, less any refund due.

That’s legalese; an officiously precise form of the English language that is borderline incomprehensible to those not trained in its tortuous wendings. Although there is little ambiguity in (3), it’s very difficult to extract the meaning, and the sentence seems bloated. But just try shortening or clarifying the above sentence without re-introducing an ambiguity, and you’ll see the difficulty: languages are not built for precision. And, in fact, ambiguity in language is not a bug, but a feature. This is a point nicely summarized by Frederick Newmeyer in a paper that I otherwise disagree with heartily, Grammar is grammar and usage is usage (PDF):

“The transmission rate of human speech is painfully slow […] less than 100 bits per second—compared to the thousands that the personal computer on one’s desk can manage. A consequence is that speakers have to pack as much as they can into as short a time as they can, leading to most utterances being full of grammatical ambiguity […] For that reason, humans have developed complex systems of inference and implicature, conveyed meanings, and so on. […] Stephen Levinson phrased it beautifully: ‘[I]nference is cheap, articulation expensive, and thus the design requirements are for a system that maximizes inference’ (Levinson 2000:29).”

[Emphasis mine.] Ambiguity is useful, as ambiguous sentences can convey the necessary information just like unambiguous sentences, but in fewer words. The reader, listener, or whoever you’re directing your language to is then able to use their knowledge of context and implicatures to determine the appropriate interpretation (this is the “inference” process). A great example of this (again from the Newmeyer paper, but originally from Martin, Church, & Patel 1987) is (4), which has 455 possible parses, many of which yield different meanings.

(4) List the sales of products produced in 1973 with the products produced in 1972.

And yet, given a bit of context, and some knowledge of what one is trying to do in the situation in which this sentence is uttered/written, you are able to pretty quickly figure out which potential meaning is the best. Trying to make the sentence perfectly unambiguous would only drown the reader in words.

Summary: Pick your battles against ambiguity. Where ambiguity is truly detrimental, put forth the effort to clarify, to root out plausible ambiguities and remove them. Where ambiguity is tolerable, it can be better to leave it in to keep from exhausting yourself and your audience.

[If you’re interested in more on potential vs. effective ambiguity, Arnold Zwicky had a post on Language Log from 2008 discussing this topic. Now that I look at his post again, I’ve realized that most of what I said here, he already said there, plus more.]

*: I know some of you in the audience are editors, and I’ve had a few editors explain to me that their job consists in part of idiot-proofing writing. This requires you to try to make it as easy on the reader as possible, and to assume that the reader will fall into whatever garden paths and other meaning pitfalls are possible. Removing the potentially ambiguous situations might be seen as a step in this task. That’s a fair counter-point, but it does not compel a change, and the change must be weighed against the considerations. Avoiding ambiguity that requires the reader to wantonly misinterpret is less crucial than avoiding easy-to-fall-into ambiguities.

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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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