‘Because’ has become a preposition, because grammar

November 13, 2013

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.

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The sense of things improper

May 20, 2013

Alison Dye’s novel The Sense of Things (1994) has a conversation between the narrator, Joanie, and her friend-to-be, Jesus, in which Jesus nervously corrects himself twice in an effort to speak more properly.

Joanie has gone to Jesus to order new flooring for the shop she works in, and Jesus is explaining the sheet approach to her:

‘Installation is slightly easier with the sheeting and therefore cuts down on your labour costs. We would unroll it and cut as we go, from the wall out. However, with a sheet you are stuck with the one colour or print except for the borders which you can be a little creative with, if you like. I mean, with which.’ He coughed.

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Dialect query: The head of/on/to him

April 11, 2013

Regular commenter John Cowan has a question on non-standard phrases, and hopes Sentence first readers can shed some light on it:

I’d like some information from native speakers of Hiberno-English, the English variety spoken in Ireland (all counties). I figure this is a good community to ask.

Consider these three kinds of possessives applied to body parts. None of them are part of Standard English, but they are all used in other languages and possibly in spoken Hiberno-English too.

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Ending a sentence with 15+ prepositions

January 14, 2013

One of daftest and dustiest old grammar myths is the unfounded rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. This fake proscription seems to have been invented by a Latin-loving John Dryden in 1672 and, like an indestructible demonic meme, continues to gnaw at people’s minds centuries later. Some even believe it.

Avoiding preposition-stranding (as it’s known) can have deliberately comical results, famously in not-Churchill’s ‘arrant nonsense up with which I will not put’. And then there’s the well-known line contrived to end in a whole stack of prepositions: ‘What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of [about Down Under] up for?’

A couple of those ‘prepositions’ might be better described as adverbs, but anyway. Variations on this line abound; until lately, though, I had never seen one so extravagant as this 15-preposition-pile monster:

What did you bring me the magazine I didn’t want to be read to out of about “‘Over Under Sideways Down’ up from Down Under” up around for?

See Futility Closet for context, involving recursion and lighthouses. After I linked to it on Twitter, a couple of people pointed out that the line cheats by ignoring the use–mention distinction – that is, many of the prepositions aren’t used as prepositions. (Also: adverbs.) But I think cheating is allowed here in the interests of silliness.

Fiscal metaphors and everyday idioms

January 1, 2013

Happy new year, all. I hope you enjoyed the break, or at any rate survived it in one piece.

I have three new posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog to round off 2012. First up, An everyday usage anymore looks at the different ways anymore (and any more) is used:

Macmillan’s page on anymore notes that it is usually used in negatives (We don’t use the car anymore) or questions (Do you knit anymore?). It also appears in conditional contexts (If you fight anymore, I’ll stop the game). And sometimes the negative is not explicit but implied: It’s too busy to visit anymore. So for most people the word is what linguists call a negative polarity item.

But there is a variant construction, generally called positive anymore, that means “nowadays” or “from now on”: I cycle to work anymore. Macmillan Dictionary will be digital-only anymore. This usage dates to the 1850s at least, and seems to be spreading. [read more]


It’s the time of year for words of the year, and still making headlines beyond this niche – even in Ireland now – is fiscal cliff. So in The steep rise of ‘fiscal cliff’ I assess the term’s effectiveness as a metaphor. Some critics have said it’s unsuitable,

mainly because the economy would more likely drop gradually than with the irreversible abruptness of falling off a cliff edge. The word invites images like the Washington Post’s “going over the cliff” and “fall over the fiscal cliff” – dramatic events compared to what would happen on a fiscal curve or fiscal hill, which have been proposed as alternatives.

But fiscal cliff is unlikely to be displaced. It comprises several constituent metaphors that our minds integrate into a powerful combination. In his anatomy of fiscal cliff at the Huffington Post, George Lakoff mentions conceptual metaphors such as TheFutureIsAhead, which is how we commonly conceptualise time; along with MoreIsUp, SuccessIsUp, ActivityIsMotion and others, all bundled in the fiscal cliff complex. [read more]


Finally, Try to get over ‘try and’ looks at the synonymity and subtle differences between try to and try and. Although both phrases are standard, try and is sometimes rejected as illogical or just plain wrong, which I think is unfounded:

A recurring objection, as Cathy Relf discovered, is that try and [verb] implies two successive actions, trying and [verb]ing, and that the phrase is therefore ambiguous or misleading. When I asked on Twitter, I received several responses along these lines (as well as insights into how people use them differently).

But this is an overly literal interpretation of an idiom. I’ve never seen anyone raise the same objection to constructions like Go and (find out), Come and (visit), or Be sure and (say hello). The parallels between these and try and are not precise, but the key word is idiom. Trying to impose strict, literal logic on them is misguided. [read more]

The honourable peacay sent me a great survey (PDF) of the semantic and pragmatic differences between try to and try and, but the link seems to be down at the moment. Back at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, don’t miss Michael Rundell’s summary of the highlights of the year, or Kati Sule’s collection of the blog’s 10 most popular posts of 2012.


Another construction in the same vein is check and/to. The more informal version, check and, is used in Richard Stark’s novel Slayground:

There was a telephone on the desk, but he hadn’t even bothered to check and see if it was working.

Grammar and style in recent reading

October 4, 2012

This post is a hotchpotch of items of grammatical interest from books I read recently. Sections link to older posts and other articles, to distract from the fact that I’m currently too busy to blog as regularly as I’d like.

First up: Heroes and Villains: An Anthology of Animosity and Admiration (1994) is a mixum-gatherum of articles assembled and introduced by John Walsh from a regular feature in The Independent magazine. It has some good lines: “I would like to write the way Fred Astaire danced” (Gilbert Adair); “a breath of rank air” (Beryl Bainbridge on Rasputin).

Of more interest grammatically is the following instance of faulty parallelism, similar to the “as much, or more, than” construction I analysed before. It’s from Russell Hoban’s tribute to Walter de la Mare:

There are moments and people in literature that become as real (and sometimes realer than) the moments and people in one’s own life . . .

There’s little if any effect on comprehension, and surely no possible confusion, but some editors would insert as before the parenthesis to make the syntax more rigorously logical. Other usage authorities, though, consider the shorter construction to be idiomatic and wholly unobjectionable (see my earlier post for details). What say you?


Item 2: The Fragile Species, Lewis Thomas’s 1992 collection of essays on medicine, biology and the human condition, contains the notable phrase “space space”:

Within another century it is likely that we will have swarmed everywhere, pole to pole, covering almost every livable acre of land space and water space. Some people are even talking seriously of space space, theorizing about the possibility of launching synthetic cities and countrysides enclosed in huge vehicles to sail the galaxy and perhaps colonize other celestial bodies.

This is a nice example of contrastive focus reduplication, whereby outer space is contrasted with terrestrial space through immediate repetition of the polysemous word. Similarly, a review of The Raid: Redemption says it’s “the sort of film for which the phrase ‘movie-movie’ was coined”. I guess a movie-movie is one made primarily to excite and entertain us rather than challenging us or making us think.

(My Tumblr blog has another passage from Thomas’s book, on the subject of extinction events and the future of life on earth.)


Finally, a book I’m reading at the moment, Rebecca Skloot’s admirable The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), contains this sentence:

She had dozens of “spiritual sons,” who she treated no different than her six biological sons.

Note the informal who where sticklers would insist on whom. I’m a little surprised an editor or proofreader didn’t change it – unless they did and it was stetted – but I certainly have no problem with it. See my earlier post on who and whom, and Lane Greene’s recent report for Johnson of a four-year-old girl’s reaction to whom (“mama, sometimes you say a weird word”).

There’s also the interesting phrase “treated no different than”. Some readers might expect the adverb differently, and some will balk at the preposition than being coupled with different. I’m OK with different than, but the line is a little different in that its different functions not as an adjective but as a flat adverb: an adverb with the same form as its corresponding adjective. The OED labels adverbial different “chiefly jocular or dialectal”.

Here’s Emily Brewster with an excellent summary of flat adverbs:

Different from, different than, different to

April 20, 2011

I thought these things were different than they used to be. – James Thurber

If you see nothing immediately wrong with the phrases different from, different to, and different than, you might be surprised by all the ink spilt, keys poked and eyebrows furrowed over their respective permissibilities. Not only is different than often mistakenly called a mistake, it has been described as flagrant, eyebrow-raising, revolting, abominable, and ridiculous. More on that later. First, an introduction to the use and distribution of the expressions.

Different from is by far the most widely used and accepted form, different to is common in British English, and different than is spoken regularly in different varieties of English, including US English and BrE. All have their uses. The predominance of different from, particularly in written English, is shown by these figures from the Collins Cobuild Bank of English, which I found at alt.usage.english:

and in the following ngrams of instances in BrE and AmE texts:

Searches in American and British corpora show some of the many ways these expressions are used. The voluminous Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) offers a historical survey of both usage and commentary, and concludes that all three “have been in standard usage since the 16th and 17th centuries and all three continue to be in standard use”. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (CGSAE) concurs: all “are Standard and have long been so”.

The critics, however, have not been dissuaded. The Shorter OED tells us:

Different to and different than are often regarded as incorrect, though used by many well-known writers since [the 17th century]; different than is now almost exclusively used in North American English, where different to is rare.

The American Heritage Dictionary elaborates:

Since the 18th century, language critics have singled out different than as incorrect, though it is well attested in the works of reputable writers. . . . Different than is more acceptably used, particularly in American usage, where the object of comparison is expressed by a full clause: The campus is different than it was 20 years ago. Different from may be used with a clause if the clause starts with a conjunction and so functions as a noun: The campus is different from how it was 20 years ago.

Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Guide to English Usage supports the point about how each form has its particular virtues:

Different from, the more common, works best when followed by a noun or a pronoun. [the new proposal is very different from the old one] [her view is so different from his]. Different than works best when a clause follows [expecting a different result than to be left penniless] [she looks little different now than we remember her from our school days].

And yet. Browsing the internet for opinion on the matter, we meet a mass of peremptory protest, which I must now counter-protest. Different than is not grammatically incorrect, nor can it be dismissed as a common grammar error or an eyebrow-raising gaffe, let alone one of the 10 dumbest grammar mistakes. It is neither a nasty and glaring error nor a flagrant grammar mistake that makes you look stupid or dumb. You may call different than abominable, but this is a matter of taste. You may call it ignorant, but you would be wrong, and unaware of the unfortunate irony.

These judgements, whether rude or neutral, newly acquired or long indulged, are pet peeves. They have nothing to do with grammatical correctness. Any suggestion that different than/to is grammatically incorrect, end of story, would have dissolved in a few minutes’ research or by consulting a single reliable authority.

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