Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Just because

with 12 comments

Because I Said So!!

Photo: Timothy Valentine

Who would have thought that the everyday word ‘because’ might cause confusion? It hadn’t occurred to me until I came across this note in the Oxford Dictionary of English:

When ‘because’ follows a negative construction the meaning can be ambiguous.

The example given by the ODE is:

He did not go because he was ill.

And the confusion becomes clear. (If you see what I mean.) That sentence could mean either:

His illness prevented him from going.

Or:

His illness wasn’t the reason why he went. (There must have been another reason. Free drinks, perhaps.)

Subtle stuff, but something to be wary of.

To get round the problem, the ODE suggests commas placed here and there (I won’t bore you with details) but says it is probably best not to use ‘because’ after negatively constructed phrases such as ‘he did not go’.

Because I’m feeling generous today, I’ll also let you know that it’s perfectly OK to begin a sentence with ‘because’. Just put your fingers in your ears and whistle when anyone tells you otherwise. The same goes for ‘and’ and ‘but’.

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12 Responses

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  1. “His being ill wasn’t why he didn’t go.” MUCH clearer…

    Michael Farrell

    08/10/2010 at 6:42 am

    • Michael — you are a veritable word magician.

      Deborah

      08/10/2010 at 7:09 am

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lisa B and Sandra Lee, Deborah Bennison. Deborah Bennison said: Just because: http://wp.me/pFKkP-1nx […]

  3. Talking about ambiguousness, I don’t have a whistle to put my fingers in.

    Dai

    08/10/2010 at 10:18 am

    • Thank you, Dai — that made me laugh. Being a bit dense, I had to think about it for a second or two, but got there in the end…

      Deborah

      08/10/2010 at 10:22 am

  4. I personally find that ‘because’ and ‘just because’ are handy weapons in the parenting arsenal if, like me, you worry that too much information could be harmful to those precious little darlings. Let me illustrate:

    “Brussel sprouts smell like dirty nappies. I’ll faint if I eat them! WHY do I have to eat them? WHY?”

    “Because”

    “Because WHY?”

    “Just. BECAUSE.” (Hint: Must be muttered through gritted teeth; You have to look like your head is going to pop off at any minute or it doesn’t work)

    Jo

    08/10/2010 at 8:40 pm

    • Jo, try par-boiling then roasting sprouts, and serving with a splash of oyster sauce and just a touch – it dominates terribly if you’re not careful – of sesame oil.

      On the other hand, I’ll never understand why people don’t like sprouts just as they are (tip – serve slightly al dente and you lose the sulphurous smell).

      Ron

      09/10/2010 at 10:07 am

  5. Well, thank you Ron. I love roasted vegetables but it never occurred to me to put sprouts in the oven. I’ll try preparing them as you’ve suggested. As for the generally disagreeable pongy-ness of sprouts, I didn’t realize that if I didn’t steam them into limp submission, they might not be so..well..pongy. 🙂

    Jo

    09/10/2010 at 12:15 pm

  6. I really love your choice of an image: I’m going to Wikipedia to get my own and store it, in case I ever teach or tutor again.
    Love the post, too. Unfortunately, it’s the name of a song that I like by Jané’s Addiction. I’ll drop off a link, but I don’t know if that would be your cup of tea. But I can’t find the CD in this record/CD/stereo/computer store that allows us to live here as long as we worship them. (I’m only kidding about the worship. We do that on our own.)
    I have a friend (do you belong to Bloggers Unite?) TourJoursdiva; she was an English major, and we both share a love of the semi-colon! That makes us almost soul mates!
    Any opinion on the semi-colon? Under-appreciated or overused? When you have time, no rush! I’m in fair shape tonight, so I’ll be chatting every where!
    Hope you are well. Sweet tides, Linda

    scribadiva

    16/10/2010 at 3:40 am

    • Hi, Linda — how nice to see you again. You’re more than welcome to leave the song link!

      I have posted on the semicolon before (links below) and I’m a fan of it too (though often lapse into lazy dashes instead when writing informally).

      I love your sign off ‘sweet tides’ and am going to shamelessly steal it and claim it as my own.

      (PS. I’m not familiar with Bloggers Unite.)

      Semicolon posts:

      Using semicolons for lists
      The beautiful semicolon

      Deborah

      16/10/2010 at 8:55 am

  7. http://www.youtube.com/user/scribadiva?feature=mhum#p/f/14/xoTzMAFetLs

    You shamelessly steal Sweet Tides, and I’ll shamelessly promote my You Tube Channel.

    Why you ask? Just because. (I couldn’t help myself.)
    Speaking of parental use, my mother would say, like the movie title, “Because I said so.” But my big brother used the “Just Because!” gritted teeth and all. Sweet tides
    N.B. I shamelessly stole that from a little-known song, but I don’t mean it the way the song does.

    scribadiva

    16/10/2010 at 12:09 pm

  8. Shameless promotion is shamelessly promoted around here.

    I don’t dare ask about the meaning of the song. Noooo — don’t tell me.

    Deborah

    16/10/2010 at 2:52 pm


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