Because (Prep).

I have little patience with “word of the year” hoopla; as I wrote to Paul T. (who agreed), it seems like pure marketing nonsense.  (Needless to say, if people enjoy it, I don’t begrudge them their enjoyment — this is Liberty Hall, and I speak only for myself.)  But Geoff Pullum has an extremely interesting point to make about the American Dialect Society’s choice of because with noun phrase (a phenomenon discussed, among many other places, in Megan Garber’s Atlantic Monthly article “English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet“) in his Log post Because syntax, namely that because is a preposition and not, as most dictionaries call it, a conjunction. He begins by going into great detail about why it isn’t a conjunction and then explains why because of isn’t a preposition before giving his own conclusion about because:

Contrary to all the dictionaries, it is a preposition. As its complement (the phrase that follows it to complete the PP) it may take either a clause (as in the PP because he holds ridiculous beliefs) or a PP with of as its head (as in the PP because of our public universities). Some prepositions can occur with no complement (as in We went in), some require an NP (as of does) some require a clause (as although does), and some require a PP (like out in those uses that do not involve exiting from delimited regions of space: notice that They did it out of ignorance is grammatical but *They did it out ignorance is not).

The change that has caught the eye of the American Dialect Society is simply that because has picked up the extra privilege already possessed by prepositions like of: it now allows a noun phrase (NP) as complement (with a subtly different shade of meaning: because money seems to express only a rather vague and non-serious commitment to the idea that the reason is financial).

It’s all good stuff; read the whole thing.

Comments

  1. May I lay claim to spotting a new ambiguity? Since internet.

  2. That might be an ambiguity if since were used that way, but as far as I know it’s not.

  3. “as far as I know it’s not”: I’m sure we could do something about that.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    I wonder if the loss of “of” after “because” is part of a wider phenomenon of omitting prepositions in English. For instance, I learned “out of the window” but most people around me now say “out the window”. People used to agree or disagree “on” things, but now some of them “agree things”. Similarly, some of them “travel Europe” (a less recent usage, I think) after they “graduate high school or college”.

  5. M-L, that is really not what is going on here. I have never seen “because X” used in any way that was not ironic and specifically I have only ever seen it used to mock and opposing position by way attributing grammatical incompetence to those holding and advocating that position. So you see “Because patriarchy” on gender blogs as a way of rirdiculing someone’s facile feminist gender analysis. A similar thing is going on with the “I is X” formula. I saw a woman mock this kind of analysis with “He is not treating me like the princess I think I am. I is insult!”.

    “Because X” is a formulaic expression, not some development in the propositional system.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    I don’t keep up all that closely with the Young People and How They Talk On The Internet, but I have certainly seen it used more broadly than Jim thinks he has, although broadly consistently with Pullum’s “vague and non-serious” description. Although maybe “non-serious” just means “informal” or perhaps “playful” (one can be “playful” while still being “serious” for some but not all meaning of “serious,” or so I would contend). One might, for example, assert that such and such crackpot position affirmed by someone or other on the internet is wrong “because science” as a way of conveying something like “is so obviously wrong for reasons sufficiently obvious to anyone versed in science that I’m not going to waste my time and insult my interlocutors’ intelligence by spelling them out in detail.”

  7. “Because X” is a formulaic expression [used to mock], not some development in the propositional [sic] system.

    This is also my take. But as time passes, the mockery may fade and we’ll be stuck with the preposition.

  8. I have certainly seen it used more broadly than Jim thinks he has

    Me too.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    I just read Pullum’s post (comments off) and the comments that follow Mark Liberman’s post on the topic. Someone commented that although adults might use the structure informarlly and jokingly, some teenagers and children were using it as normal. This is a typical evolution: some linguistic feature is used in a particular context, is picked up more generally and ends up becoming standard.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t mean that it has become standard or is even on its way to becoming so, just that it would not be surprising if it did.

  11. There’s a useful post on the grammar of because X at All Things Linguistic.

  12. For me as for Jim, the canonical use is a sardonic summing up: “Of course they oppose it, because socialism.” But Mark Liberman’s post has lots of examples of less pointed (less successful?) uses as well. And note, Geoff Pullum isn’t arguing that this usage makes “because” a preposition; he’s arguing that it should always have been classified that way, and that this is one tiny addition to the prepositional functions it already performs.

  13. Stu,

    “Because X” is a formulaic expression [used to mock], not some development in the propositional [sic] system.”

    Sic indeed. Prepostitional.

    M-L,
    “Someone commented that although adults might use the structure informarlly and jokingly, some teenagers and children were using it as normal. This is a typical evolution: some linguistic feature is used in a particular context, is picked up more generally and ends up becoming standard.”

    This is one where all we have to do is wait to find out. it will probably be clear within the next twenty years.

    If Ii look at simalr expressions, this is exactly the course they have taken. “How about we just drop it?” obviously was malformed at some point in time.

  14. I don’t see the WOTY hoople as “marketing nonsense”; I think it’s a fun and interesting excuse to track (and discuss) lexical trends and innovations, however ephemeral they turn out to be. This is especially the case with the ADS event on account of its numerous specialist categories. Looking back on previous winners also provides a snapshot of erstwhile social/cultural preoccupations and fads.

    Some years the winners are pretty uninspiring: a financial topic that dominated the headlines, for example. So “because” is an interest choice for several reasons, not least them the disagreements over its grammar. I’m also pleased because it’s a usage I’ve written about and have been following (and I picked it as my word/phrase of the year at Macmillan Dictionary Blog before Christmas).

  15. I don’t see the WOTY hoople as “marketing nonsense”

    Well, you wouldn’t, would you, being a tool of Big Lexicography? But as I said, I don’t begrudge anyone their fun; I’m just a grumpy old codger who calls ‘em as he sees ‘em.

  16. John Cowan says:

    One of Pullum’s irritating mannerisms is that he makes technical points for shock value. CGEL says (I think rightly) that there is no hard and fast line between the gerund (nounish) and participle (adjectivish) uses of the English -ing form. But instead of adopting a neutral term like “-ing form”, it saddles us with the hybrid “gerund-participle”. Okay. But when it merges the traditional categories of preposition, adverbial particle, and subordinating conjunction (again, I think, on good grounds), it insists on using preposition for all of them, and then jumping down people’s throats when they use the older terminology in all innocence, thus conflating the terminology issue (which is trivial) with the substantive issue.

    The same thing happens with CGEL’s restriction of subjunctive to the old present subjunctive; instead of saying that the old preterite subjunctive is “not a subjunctive at all”, it’s better to explain the point: that the present and the preterite have gone their separate ways enough to justify using separate top-level terms subjunctive and conditional for them.

    Stan: Do you actually say “hoople” rather than “hoopla”, or was that a typo?

  17. I agree about the craven pandering of WOTY. But with so many competing WOTYs, I would support a WOTYOTY tournament, to be held in late January, if only to have ADS, MW, and OD (dare I add GLM?) get all catty about each other’s “methodologies.”

  18. John: It was a typo, alas, one of several in that comment. Too much screen time today, and not enough care before clicking. But being called a tool of Big Lexicography by Mr Hat has soothed me considerably!

  19. It would have been better if Hat had said ‘because Big Lexicography’.

  20. I’m not cool enough to say that.

  21. Jan,

    “And note, Geoff Pullum isn’t arguing that this usage makes “because” a preposition; he’s arguing that it should always have been classified that way, and that this is one tiny addition to the prepositional functions it already performs.”

    Okay. Works for me. I suppose if “behind” or “beneath” can become a prepositions, “because” can too.

  22. John Cowan says:

    Stan the Man: just another running dog of Big Lexicography.

  23. “License my roving hands, and let them go/Before, behind, between, because below.”

  24. My principal reaction to everything of the WOTY kind is a curmudgeonly annoyance that seems very similar to Hat’s. Nevertheless I was happy to hear that “because [NP]” won.

  25. Yes, exactly. If there must be a WOTY, let it be “because [NP].”

  26. I note also that I don’t care if this particular “word of the year” is a word or not. I’m glad it was chosen because I like it.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    When I was a young teen-ager in France, some slightly older girls used a phrase that I was never quite sure meant : because les mouches (yes, with the English word). I knew the English word because, but I never understood the reference to ‘the flies’. I think the purpose was the same as using because in English in order NOT to provide an explanation. In any case, it must have been a passing fashion.

  28. I think Pullum missed the mark on this one. Pullum says that the “new because” is the same as the “old because”, with just a slight expansion of the leeway it can have in the type of its complement. He argues that the “old because” could take of-PP complements (“because of it”) and clause complements (“because it’s there”), but couldn’t have null complements or NP complements. The “new because”, he says, merely additionally allows NP complements (“because syntax”), just as some other prepositions do, like in (“in the house”) or since (“since Tuesday”).
    To me, the “new because” is often willfully ungrammatical, in a way that purposefully jars. Consider the following examples (all from the web):

    Idiot thinks sports cars are now irrelevant because stupid. An adjective complement. Are there any other prepositions at all with an Adj complement?

    Michigan Rejects “War Sux” Vanity Plate Because THINK OF THE CHILDREN. An imperative clause complement. Bad, bad, bad.

    I also found They left me as friend because think I’m not interested in them.. how can I fix? but that seems like mere telegraphic/texting style, not the onward march of the brave new syntax.

    Because, after all, why not? is a bit odd. I think of it as “old because”, but can’t exactly say why.

    If anything, the closest parallel to the “new because” is the good old null-complement form, just because. Like the “new because”, it flaunts its non-sequitur complement to highlight an unreasonable excuse—in fact, a nonexistent one.

  29. John Cowan says:

    Empty: I too am glad they chose it because you like it.

    If on my theme I rightly think,
    There are five reasons why men drink:—
    Good wine; a friend; because I’m dry;
    Or lest I should be by and by;
    Or — any other reason why. —Henry Aldrich

  30. I agree with John Cowan. Dr. Pullum’s remarks are absurd, because they presuppose that terms have meanings he would consider more logical, rather than the meanings they actually have. He’s like the peever who claims to misunderstand “I didn’t see nobody” — except he’s worse, because he should know better.

  31. John Cowan says:

    It’s not absurd to redefine terms, especially for good reasons. It’s annoying to conflate misunderstandings of substance with misuse of terms.

  32. ML: Was there a meaning attached to because les mouches, using it for example as an absurdist excuse: “We missed meeting those people because les mouches or was it just a nonsense expression ?

  33. marie-lucie says:

    Paul, I don’t remember because les mouches used within a sentence, only as a reply, but if it did occur within a sentence it could be that I just missed it. I heard the phrase a number of times in the conversation of slightly older girls, talking between themselves, not to me. The fad cannot have lasted more than a year or two, otherwise I might have heard it enough to understand how it was used, and perhaps to use it myself.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Stan: I looked up the reference at All things linguistic and found some of the interpretations (and some of the examples) very strange. The author says that the word after because in because Noun or because Verb is an interjection. Also, there is a quotation from a current dictionary which refers to the category of “subordinating conjunctions”, including which and who among those conjunctions. It seems that “subordinate” now means “dependent”, without a distinction between subordinate and relative clauses, or between the type of words which introduce them.

    I am probably way behind the times in theoretical syntactic knowledge, but is this the new grammar?

  35. Marie-Lucie:

    Google France comes up with the following, in all of which because les mouches is used in the literal sense of “because of the flies”. So it seems to have hung on but now be used literally, not (at least in print) necessarily as a teenage expression, the most recent use being last September.

    2 – Forums orange
    forum.orange.fr › Culture et Loisirs › Animaux
    26 sept. 2013 – 10 messages – ‎3 auteurs
    Tous les matins nous étions obligés de lessiver à fond les fauteuils de jardin blancs qui ne l’étaient plus because les mouches. C’est vrai que …

    Plein les moustaches – Résultats Google Recherche de Livres
    books.google.fr/books?isbn=2265092010
    SAN-ANTONIO – 2011 – ‎Fiction
    Sa carriole contenait des quartiers de viande noirâtre, à reflets bleutés because les mouches qui venaient se goinfrer. Des bonnes femmes sortirent une à une …

    Confiture de figues violettes (noires) – La Cachina
    la-cachina.over-blog.com/article-12356397.html‎
    16 sept. 2013 – Image. – Couvrez le récipient d’un torchon extra super propre , because les mouches , et laissez en l’état quelques heures, juste après la sieste .
    ..
    4 – La Cachina
    la-cachina.over-blog.com/12-categorie-10608230.html‎
    26 août 2010 – Laissez reposer une nuit avec un torchon au dessus, because les mouches. Commencez la cuisson lentement, puis augmentez ..

    There were a few more, one marked “erotique” which I will spare the readers…
    .

  36. m.-l., here are more French becauses, at Bob, dictionnaire d’argot, an interesting resource of I have never heard of before.

  37. @John Cowan: It’s not absurd to redefine terms, but it certainly is absurd to claim that your new definitions are correct on logical grounds and therefore that all other sources are misusing the terms.

  38. Coming from a Russian perspective, where incomplete sentences are norm, pronoun as subject is often dropped and is/are in the present tense is not used, I thought because + noun, verb or adjective was simply English adopting the use of incomplete forms as acceptable.
    I don’t like fast cars because stupid – [they are] dropped.
    It reached a dead-end because socialism [as a system doesn't work]
    Michigan Rejects “War Sux” Vanity Plate Because [we should] THINK OF THE CHILDREN

    If you look at it that way, because is still a conjunction. It’s the sentence structure that has evolved not the word. No?

  39. It’s the sentence structure that has evolved not the word. No?

    I’m afraid not. If your analysis were correct, there would be a clear missing word or set of words that could be supplied by any English speaker, just as anyone can expand “I don’t” (as an answer to, say, “Does anyone know?”) to “I don’t know.” But if we take the title of Garber’s article “English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet,“ there is no particular omission: one person might expand it to “because the internet has expanded the range,” another to “because the internet enables grammatical creativity”… you get the idea. It really is the case that the word has developed a new usage.

  40. John Cowan says:

    Mmm, I don’t think so. “Because NOUN” can almost always be rephrased as “because of NP”. If the title had been “English Has a New Preposition, Because of the Internet”, it would be just as semantically ambiguous.

    Idiot thinks sports cars are now irrelevant because stupid.

    This can also be read as traditional because with an elliptical complement clause: ‘because they are stupid’, rather than ‘because he is stupid’.

  41. ok, I take it, because.

    Has anyone also noted the ‘kiddy-speak’ element in this?
    - Why did you do this?
    - Because!

  42. @m-l

    Is not the French use of ‘because’ comparable to the British usage of ‘sans’.

    It was a common conceit at college to use ‘sans’ instead of ‘without’ (though always pronounced in an English fashion, not as in French), e.g. “I’ll have a whisky, neat, sans ice”.

    I’ve noticed that since about the 1990s this has spread from Oxbridge to become much more widespread.

  43. @Y: ‘Think of the Children’ is now, again, sarcasticallly used as an adjectival phrase, not as an actual exhortation, as in the last sentence of this: http://nplusonemag.com/the-reading-crisis

  44. John Cowan says:

    Alex: Sans has been an English word since the 14th century: the OED gives us Saunz doute swa dide þai alle bydene ‘without a doubt they all remained’. The best-known use is probably Shakespeare’s Second childishnesse, and meere obliuion / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans euery thing, and many modern uses echo it, like this from 1977: “It offers anxiety enough for the Rhodesians themselves, [...] to face the prospect of starting life afresh in some harsher, colder country, sans servants, sans swimming pool, sans sunshine, sans supremacy.”

  45. I was aware of the historical usage but thought it had fallen into disuse by the 17th century only to be revived in the late 20th century.

  46. H, John Cowan: Right now, my best description of the “new because” is that it takes as its complement a stock phrase, to be understood as evincing an emotional response, which allows a leap of logic, either justified (“…because stupid”) or not (“…because think of the children”).

    Interestingly, the “new because” does not appear comfortable with pronominal complements (*”…because you”), whereas the “old because” does (“…because of you”).

  47. John Cowan says:

    Alex: The OED’s quotations since Shakespeare are dated 1631, 1686, 1687, 1688, 1797, 1828-40, 1841, 1883, 1901, 1922, 1929, 1942, 1970, 1975, 1977, 1979. The 1841, 1975, and 1977 quotations are American, as it happens.

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  1. […] More discussion and links at Language Log’s ‘ADS WOTY: “Because”‘; and Language Hat’s ‘Because (Prep).’ […]

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