If the title of this post made perfect sense to you, then you’re way ahead of me. But just in case, we’d best recap. Neal Whitman wrote a good article at Grammar Girl recently on the possible origins of because as a standalone preposition. This helpful passage from Whitman sets out the context:
In Standard English, the word “because” can be used two ways. One of them is to introduce a clause, as in “Aardvark was late because he was waiting for the repairman to show up.” Used this way, “because” is a subordinating conjunction. The other is to team up with “of” to form what’s called a compound preposition. For example, “Aardvark was late because of heavy traffic.” In the past three or four years, though, a new usage for “because” has been developing.
The new usage – older than 3–4 years, mind – is what Laura Bailey and Mark Liberman, respectively, have referred to as “because+noun” and “because NOUN”. Liberman says the idiom usually seems to imply “that the referenced line of reasoning is weak”. Sometimes, yes, but it’s also commonly used just for convenience, or effect: No work tomorrow because holidays!; Of course evolution is true, because science.
Because X is fashionably slangy at the moment, diffusing rapidly across communities. It has a snappy, jocular feel, with a syntactic jolt that allows long explanations to be forgone. Because time-strapped. Maybe the causal factor is so obvious as to need no elaboration, or the speaker is distracted or giddy, or online and eager to save effort and move on, or maybe the construction appeals for undefined aesthetic or social reasons.
Gretchen McCulloch, at All Things Linguistic, points out that there seem to be restrictions on what kind of noun phrases can occur here. Providing examples of what works and doesn’t work for her (e.g., Yes to: I can’t come out tonight because homework/essays; No to: I can’t come out tonight because lots of homework/this essay), she concludes:
it seems like the because+noun construction really must consist of a bare noun, not a noun with a determiner or an adjective. However, I think I might be able to be okay with:
? I can never get to bed at a reasonable hour because interesting people on the internet!
With new usages, as with old ones, what works or doesn’t varies from person to person. Bare nouns certainly seem more common in the X slot, and tend to carry more emphasis, but I’ve seen longer noun phrases, and other classes of words, used too; there are examples below.
The construction is more versatile than “because+noun” suggests. This because can be yoked to verbs (Can’t talk now because cooking), adjectives (making up examples because lazy), interjections (Because yay!), and maybe adverbs too, though in strings like Because honestly., the adverb is functioning more as an exclamation. The resulting phrases are all similarly succinct and expressive.
Here are some examples from Twitter, categorised by grammatical class:
Nouns, noun phrases, proper nouns:
(Feels in the last tweet is a popular slang abbreviation of feelings, especially in the sense of strong or overwhelming emotion.)
On Language Log I left a comment (before I’d checked) suggesting the usage could’ve come from the “because race car” meme of 2011. But corpus searches show examples from years before that. GloWbE has loads, with many of the noun phrases recurring – science, math, people, art, reasons, comedy, bacon, ineptitude, fun, patriarchy, politics, school, intersectionality, and winner all show up at least twice in the X slot.
Scanning COHA and COCA for similar constructions, I found examples from ABC’s This Week, 2012: “I’m supporting the Patriots because Patriots.”; CNN’s Larry King Show, 2001: “And of course, that was last thing in the world she would do because publicity.” (though the omission of a definite article makes me wonder if it was poorly transcribed); and NBC’s Dateline, 2005:
I definitely kind of viewed him as a suspect.
Well, because motive.
Fox News Sunday, 15 years ago, has: “And Primary Colors I think has hit the country like a dud, because behavior. It’s not inspiring.” But I’m not sure: it may be more like “because behaviour, it’s not inspiring”, where the noun is fronted and the grammar, though loose, doesn’t use the prepositional because we’re looking at. Ditto this from Ebony, 2007: “People die of heart attacks and strokes because diabetes. It is one of the more underlisted causes of death…”
Written examples of prepositional because aren’t rare, but they’re pretty much unheard of in edited text, except where it’s reported speech. COCA offers the following, from the Roeper Review, 1996: “But motivation alone does not assure success: ‘Because circumstances. I was just lucky, really…’”
There’s also an old and standard construction that’s superficially very similar to prepositional because. The last time I remember seeing it was in Final Cut, Steven Bach’s book on the making of Heaven’s Gate:
It was pointed out that there seemed to be plenty of time for endless reexamination of footage or for monomaniacal reworking of technical processes, but those all were justified in the name of Art, while seeing how the picture played before an audience was both pointless, because Cimino knew how it would play, and ignoble because a question of mere Commerce.
It’s different, though, because elliptical. Bach’s “ignoble because a question…” is a grammatical elision of “ignoble because it was a question…”. Our non-standard idiom, by contrast, isn’t eliding particular words – it’s substituting for a whole, possibly vague, train of thought, and could take the form “because Commerce(!)”. Bach’s couldn’t.
[Analogous examples, from Time magazine, 1929: “Professor Einstein holds that perception is generally false because relative.”; and Michele Vialet, 2002: “The price for failing to heed this warning and do justice to the fundamental polyphony of any society is a second outburst of violence, more extreme than the first occurrence because self-annihilating.”]
But back to novel because X. Where did it come from? No one is quite sure. Neal Whitman agrees with Language Log commenters who think it could be from “Because hey”–type sentences (If life gives you lemons, keep them, because, hey, free lemons), where hey functions “like an adaptor, letting you shift from the ordinary speech register to this casual and condensed register”. And then people started dropping the hey.
It’s not always hey, either: take this line from the linguistically trend-setting Buffy, season 5 (January 2001): “I don’t even get how we made that guy, because, wow, advanced!” There may also be forerunners in child–parent exchanges like “Why? That’s the why” and “Why? Because.”; and in the popular insults “Because shut up” and “Because fuck you, that’s why.”
However it arose, it seems to be spreading. Language loves economy, and the sheer efficiency of this use of because is likely boosting its popularity. Similar constructions are occurring with but, also, so, thus and similar words – see the frame from xkcd, above. And in the Language Log thread (which is worth reading in full), Rod Johnson says a friend “ended a litany of miscellaneous complaints with ‘In conclusion, STUFF.’” All these syntactic compressions may be reinforcing each other.
I’ve used the construction myself, though not often. On Twitter a year ago I was asked if there’s a “male equivalent of feminist”, and because of the medium’s spatial limitations (and because I was impulsively drawn to the unorthodox syntax) I said: “No precise equivalent, because patriarchy, but ‘masculist’/’masculinist’ is closest. Interpretations of it vary a lot.”
Is prepositional-because grammatical? Sure. Not in Standard English, of course. But lots of people are using it in a systematic and semantically transparent way. It has obvious appeal in a range of informal contexts, though whether it manages ultimately to insinuate itself into more formally acceptable usage remains to be seen.
You needn’t use or like this usage of because, and you might even find it annoying, but there’s nothing linguistically problematic about it. Because grammar weirds, because language.
Following up on this post, Megan Garber at the Atlantic (“English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet”) describes the construction as “exceptionally bloggy and aggressively casual and implicitly ironic. And also highly adaptable.” She notes the significant role of the internet in its development and dissemination, and speculates on its origins.
Gretchen McCulloch has also returned to it at All Things Linguistic (“Where ‘because noun’ probably came from”), delving further into the grammaticality of different forms of because X and suggesting a different origin story from the because-hey hypothesis.
There’s more coverage at Neatorama, Daily Dot, CBS News, Boing Boing, and the Russian site Lenta.ru. Coverage elsewhere (Business Insider, Mashable et al.) mostly repeats the Atlantic story, but I’ll add useful links here as they happen.)
My post’s title may be a bit misleading, and I regret that. I wanted it to include the because X construction, but I ended up sounding too emphatic: because‘s prepositional nature here is not certain. CGEL apparently considers it one even in its traditional roles, but other language commentators disagree. See the comments for discussion.
On Twitter, Jonathan Lipps offers the example “Unfortunately, [noun phrase]“, and suggests that it’s not so much about because changing as it is the generalisation of “[noun-phrase]-as-elided-clause”.
Joining the preposition camp is Joe at Mr. Verb, who notes that because originates as a prepositional phrase (by cause), and finds the new usage “has a pretty classic distribution of a preposition [...] and the semantics are not weird for a preposition”. He also raises interesting questions from the point of view of historical linguistics.
Many of us—especially younger generations—seem to take special pleasure in wordplay that upends standard grammatical conventions. But why? According to one psychological theory, humor is fundamentally about detecting something that violates our expectations, but in a nonthreatening way. . . . Given grammar’s relatively low stakes, then, it is fodder for immediate humor.
I left a comment on Jessica’s post, and hope to revisit the subject here before long.
Update season 2:
The American Dialect Society has named because its 2013 Word of the Year (I called it in December) prompting renewed discussion of the word’s precise grammatical role in the because X construction. A very helpful post at All Things Linguistic makes a persuasive case that this novel because “isn’t a preposition (but is actually cooler)“.
At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum takes polite but firm issue with McCulloch’s interpretation, in a post on the promiscuity of prepositions: “the mistake of trusting a standard dictionary definition of ‘preposition’ has misled All Things Linguistic (and even Stan Carey to some extent), just like it misleads everyone else.”
Linguist Neal Whitman revisits the grammar of because in both its new and traditional uses, at Visual Thesaurus: “So yes, because is a preposition, but not on account of this new usage. But there’s still the question of exactly what kind of complement this particular prepositional flavor of because takes.”
Tyler Schnoebelen at the Idibon blog has done some serious number-crunching on this, analysing twenty-something thousand tweets for patterns of because X (the top X? Yolo). For stats, laughs, and useful academic links, read his post ‘Innovating because innovation.’