English English language Expression Usage

When “thanks to” is thankless

Q: A recent article in New Scientist magazine says  some people lose the ability to speak “thanks to” certain types of brain damage. I am not a native English speaker, but I seem to remember from usage guides that “due to” is used for negative reasons, while “thanks to” is for something positive. Surely damage to the brain is not a good thing.

A: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “thanks to” can refer “to negative as well as to positive and neutral causes.” M-W gives examples of all three usages.

Negative: “He wears thick telescope-lens glasses, thanks to a painful eye operation after a car crash” (from the October 1971 issue of Stereo Review).

Positive: “never got caught in ideological quicksand, thanks largely to its organizers” (from the May 1972 issue of Change magazine).

Neutral: “True, thanks to the telephone, ordinary people write less than they did” (from Occasional Prose, 1985, by Mary McCarthy).

However, the negative use of “thanks to” is often ironic, which may be why the negative usage in New Scientist caught your attention.

The few usage guides that discuss “thanks to” (or “no thanks to”) say the usage can be positive, negative, or neutral, but that the negative examples are usually ironic.

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), for example, R. W. Burchfield says the usage has appeared “positively or adversely or ironically” since the 17th century.

But Burchfield includes what he describes as an “ironical example” for the only adverse citation: “Thanks to the hurricane, millions of trees were destroyed.”

In The Careful Writer (1965), Theodore M. Bernstein says “thanks to” may be used properly in three ways:

(1) to express gratitude, as in “Thanks to you, I got the job”;

(2) to express blame, as in “Thanks to you, I lost my job”;

(3) to express causation in a neutral way, as in “Yet the sky is crowded, thanks to the tremendous speed of modern aircraft.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to the 1600s of “thanks to” used to mean “Thanks be given to, or are due to; hence, Owing to, as a result of, in consequence of.”  The OED adds that the usage is “often ironical.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Occasionall Meditations, a 1631 collection of devotional writings by Joseph Hall, an English bishop: “It is scarce any thanke to mee that hee prevailes.”

Here’s a later example from Rokeby, an 1813 narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott: “It is a sight but rarely spied, / Thanks to man’s wrath and woman’s pride.”

Getting back to your question, “thanks to” can be used to mean “caused by” in a negative sense. But we wouldn’t use it if the phrase seemed inappropriately flippant or ironical.

We haven’t read the article in New Scientist, but we think it would be unnecessarily jarring to say some people lose the ability to speak “thanks to” certain types of brain damage. We’d use “because of” instead of “thanks to.”

As for “due to,” we had a posting in 2012 about the case for or against using the phrase to mean “because of,” a usage that has a history but will raise a few eyebrows.

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