January 05, 2014

Because: Linguists


The American Dialect Society chose "because" or rather the elliptic construction "because + N/A" (as in "He failed the test, because: grammar") as its Word of the Year 2013.

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” Zimmer [=linguist Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS New Words Committee] 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!’”
I'm feeling rather "meh" about this choice. On the one hand, I understand that linguists are excited about new constructions, especially those that seem to challenge linguistic norms, on the other hand, I think this choice is stretching the meaning of the word "word" (as in Word of the Year) quite far. I think I would rather have voted for "slash," as in "come and visit slash stay," because I think it's a great example of a linguistic innovation that started in written language and then found its way into spoken language (even if there isn't anything particularly 2013 about it). Also, new conjunctions don't exactly emerge every day (nor do new prepositions, granted, but "because" is not a new preposition, see below).

The new because construction has received quite a lot of attention in the media this year, see, for example, this recent article in the Atlantic, which claims that "because" has become a preposition. Alas, this doesn't seem to be true. On the one hand, "because" has been a preposition for some time, albeit one that has to be followed by a prepositional phrase ("because of the weather"), rather than a simple noun phrase (*"because the weather"). [I just saw that Geoffrey Pullum makes the same argument on Language Log.]

On the other hand, "because" in this new construction doesn't seem to behave like a preposition at all. First, it is typically NOT followed by a noun phrase (the hallmark behavior of a preposition) -- "He couldn't come because the weather" sounds quite awful, which is why, as early as July 2012, the construction was labeled "because NOUN" on Language Log. However, that label may be too restrictive as well. There are examples in which "because" is followed by an adjective ("because..tired") or by an interjection ("I hate shaving because...ouch"), examples taken from Language Log. Second, it seems that the construction is not limited to "because." When I discussed it in class with my students, quite a few contributed examples that included "but" instead of "because." 

So, instead of a new preposition we may have a new construction on our hands, which is just as exciting (if not more exciting), but does it give us a Word of the Year? I don't know.

In any case, it would help to get a more solid data base of acceptable uses of because NOUN. You can contribute by taking this survey created by linguist Laura Bailey.


*On Language Log, one user points out that in German, the equivalent of "because," "weil," can easily be used in this way ("Ich hasse rasieren, weil schmerzhaft" -- I hate shaving, because painful), while bare nouns seem to be awkward.

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