The Grammarphobia Blog

Because and effect

Q: I was on the Web a while ago and saw that the American Dialect Society chose “because” as its 2013 Word of the Year (not “selfie” like some others). This is “because,” as in “I’m so happy today because in love.” Yeccccch! Does this seem likely to transfer into standard English?

A: Traditionally, “because” is followed by a phrase beginning with “of” (“because of his age”) or by an entire clause (“because he was so young”).

But lately “because” has been used in a new way—followed by only an adjective, a noun, or an interjection. Examples: “She ate the leftovers because hungry” … “We’re convinced because facts” … “I bought this bikini because wow!”

This usage, which isn’t widespread enough yet to make it into standard dictionaries, represents a new grammatical function for an age-old word.

So far, this new use of “because” is mostly a youth thing, not found in mainstream writing. The people who use it in their writing—for the most part informally and online—tend to be trendy young sprouts.

We’ve never actually heard it with our own ears (possibly because we move in somewhat creakier circles than those aforementioned young sprouts).

The reason the American Dialect Society found this usage interesting is that it represents not just a new piece of vocabulary (like “selfie” or “twerk”), but a change in an existing word’s grammatical function.

Ben Zimmer, chairman of the society’s New Words Committee, explained in January on the ADS website why the group chose “because” as its word of the year.

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” Zimmer said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’ ”

Later, in his Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus website, Zimmer explained that “despite the competition, because won on the first ballot, the clear favorite of word-watchers who get excited to see a trusty old word used in novel ways. And with that, I bid you adieu, because tired.”

You ask whether this “because” will make its way into standard English. Well, the fact that it’s mostly used by the young—and online—doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a temporary fad and that it won’t become a permanent part of the language.

Many standard usages start out as slang or youthful expressions. As with all language change, this one will be adopted by people who find it useful. And if enough people adopt it, the new “because” will have staying power.

But even if this “because” does become mainstream, our guess is that it won’t happen overnight.

It’s worth noting that “because” hasn’t always existed in its modern form. It evolved for centuries before arriving at what we now consider its “traditional” usage.

When it entered Middle English around 1305, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, our word “because” was an adverbial phrase consisting of a preposition and a noun, “by cause.”

Chaucer, for example, wrote in The Franklin’s Tale (circa 1395): “By cause that he was hir neghebour.”

It was “directly modeled on the French par cause,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

In English, this phrase was often preceded by “for,” and was followed by “of,” or by an infinitive, or by a clause introduced by “that” or “why.”

This OED citation, with an introductory “for,” is from the writings of Robert Copland (c. 1541): “For bycause that the sayde indication is nat taken of the same cause ….”

In these usages, as we said above, “because” functioned as an adverb.

But as John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, “already by the end of the 14th century, that and why were beginning to be omitted, leaving because to function as a conjunction, a move which would perhaps have exercised contemporary linguistic purists as much as ‘The reason is because …’ does today.”

Chaucer was an early perpetrator. In The Franklin’s Tale, mentioned above,  he wrote a line omitting “that” in the poem’s prologue: “By cause I am a burel [unlearned] man … Haue me excused of my rude speche.”

The construction with “of” dates to the mid-14th century. The OED’s earliest example is from John Wycliffe’s The Last Age of the Church (1356): “Þe synnes bi cause of whiche suche persecucioun schal be in Goddis Chirche” (“The sins because of which such persecutions shall be in God’s Church”).

Here again, the OED notes, “for” was sometimes tacked on before, as in this 1578 translation from the works of John Calvin: “Man ought to have excelled all other Creatures, for because of the mind wherewith he was indued.”

The use of “because” followed by a “to” infinitive died out in the 16th century, but we can show you what it looked like.

This is from Thomas Langley’s 1546 translation of the works of the Italian scholar Polydore Vergil: “Arithmetike was imagyned by the Phenicians, because to vtter [sell] theyr Merchaundyse.” Here “because to” meant “in order to.”

The point of all this is that “because” has changed before, and it could change again. Only time will tell.

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