For: For or Against?

I just ran across a sentence in a year-old NYRB review by Robert O. Paxton of Pierre Birnbaum’s Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist (which sounds like a good book) and was driven to post by a sentence that made me grit my teeth: “It fell to Léon Blum to head the new government, for his Socialist Party had become the largest of the three constituent parties of the Popular Front coalition.” We all have our quirks when it comes to writing, and one of mine is a visceral dislike of “for” used to mean “because.” I’ll let it pass in a context of high-flown rhetoric (“for she was fairer than the dawn,” that kind of thing), but in ordinary prose my instinct is to delete it ruthlessly (and one of the perks of my job as an editor is that I get to indulge my instincts in such matters). English has not only “because” but “as” and “since” to indicate the requisite causal relation, and any of them would work fine in the quoted sentence; why use a twee, pseudo-poetic word whose sell-by date was sometime around the turn of the last century? But I have become curious as to whether this is no more than a personal prejudice or whether my feelings in the matter are more widely shared, so I turn to the assembled multitudes: does “for” = “because” annoy you, or do you consider it perfectly normal English?

Comments

  1. In junior high in the early fifties, we memorized the five conjunctions: and, or, but, nor, and for. While we knew that the first three were the ones most commonly used, there was no caution about the others.

  2. Oh, I know there’s no official caution against it; in fact, it’s probably propagated by just such junior-high classes. I’m wondering about people’s personal Sprachgefühl: does it sound normal, or does it sound highfalutin’/literary/poetic?

  3. It sounds old-fashioned to me, but I don’t find it irksome (and use it sparingly in my own writing).

  4. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    I think it’s normally pretentious & wouldn’t use it myself. I don’t think I would even use it in fiction to color dialog spoken by an archaic person.

    However you’ve triggered a memory about the word “for”. Not too long ago when I was teaching in Watsonville, California, I noticed that the English-speaking children there used “for” in a different way than I’m used to. They would say things like “My mom gave me money for I could buy lunch” (not an actual sentence I heard, I can’t remember an exact one)–using “for” like you would use “so” or”so that.” These were kids from a rural, blue-collar background. I thought maybe it was from Southern dialect speech but I had never heard it anywhere else before. Does that use ring a bell? These kids grew up with a lot of Spanish speaking kids and a smattering of kids from other language backgrounds but “por” is not used that way in Spanish and I think “para” isn’t similar enough to have affected this usage.

  5. I doubt I would use it myself. I suspect I dislike it for practicality rather than stylistics: there is potential for a miscue, given that “for” can indicate purpose as well as cause.

    My personal quaint-peeve is “all the while”, for some reason.

  6. I consider it pretty normal in writing, though I probably would say since instead. Here’s an example from Henry Petroski’s 2003 article “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag” (found via COCA):

    The “perfect bags” produced at the rate of eighteen hundred per hour by Wolle’s machine were, of course, not perfect, nor was his machine. The history of design has yet to see the development of a perfect object, though it has seen many satisfactory ones and many substantially improved ones. The concept of comparative improvement is embedded in the paradigm for invention, the better mousetrap. No one is ever likely to lay claim to a “best” mousetrap, for that would preclude the inventor himself from coming up with a still better mousetrap without suffering the embarrassment of having previously declared the search complete. As with the mousetrap, so with the bag.

    Petroski was born in 1942, so while he’s no spring chicken, he doesn’t go back to the turn of the last century, either.

  7. To my ear, “for” as a coordinating conjunction de-emphasizes causality and therefore has a hint of correlation or synchronicity, even though the underlying relationship is a causal one. A hint of correlation may be technically inaccurate, as in the example that got LH’s goat, but using “for” is more about flavor than the literalism of a subordinating “because”.

    That said, “for” would be pretty fustian in most contexts. In contemporary literary English it can still be acceptable, just, in large-scale history writing. But “Léon Blum arrived late at the Chambre des Députés, for he had spilt scalding tea over his trousers at breakfast” would sound silly.

  8. I associate “for” with Old High Translationese, to render Greek γάρ. Anywhere else it sounds overwrought.

  9. I associate it with Kennedy’s inaugural speech, which I heard when I was four, so I think it sounds great. As always, context is everything.

    “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago. … The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Ian: “Léon Blum arrived late at the Chambre des Députés, for he had spilt scalding tea over his trousers at breakfast” would sound silly.

    Silly in more than one way. It is very unlikely that a Frenchman would spill tea on himself at breakfast or at any other meal. Although customs are changing somewhat, café au lait in a bowl is the traditional French breakfast drink, and few adults would be clumsy enough to spill it on themselves.

    For in the above sentence does sound weird – using because would be straightforward when introducing the actual, rather trivial, concrete cause, but somehow for seems to imply some larger, perhaps more historically or even metaphysically significant cause.

  11. My feeling may be similar to Ian’s. There’s no denying that the usage has passed out of the colloquial register in my dialect (NAE), but just barely it does hang on in writing, though it has to be used judiciously. And sometimes I’m grateful it does, since conjunction-for is *not*, I would argue, equivalent to “because,” “as,” or “since.” Nor do I mean this in the trivial sense that, yes, all words have unique properties. I actually feel there’s a substantial difference, which it seems to me we can readily admit, without at all denying that language change has in most contexts left us unable to take advantage of it.

    I almost want to go a step further and suggest that living fossils like these *can*, as our host suggests, be just literary affectations, but can also–and I think this is the case here–represent niche survivals in the evolutionary sense, where the particular properties of a word or usage are appreciated enough to keep it from extinction–at least in the more kindly linguistic environment of writing.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    For instance, in the Christian Scriptures there are a number of episodes concerning Jesus where “it is written” that such and such an event had to happen in order to fulfill a given prophecy. “This happened because the prophet X predicted it” would sound ordinary and does not have the added resonance of “…. for the prophet X predicted it”. At least that is what it seems to me.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    I rather like the separate archaic/poetic-license usage of “for” found in Ye Olde Ballad Style, as, e.g., “I’m going to Louisiana, my true love for to see” or “There were three men came out of the west, their fortunes for to try.” But I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone use it recently in academic/scholarly prose, even of a high-falutin’ register.

  14. I noticed that the English-speaking children there used “for” in a different way than I’m used to. They would say things like “My mom gave me money for I could buy lunch” (not an actual sentence I heard, I can’t remember an exact one)–using “for” like you would use “so” or”so that.”

    Now that’s interesting, and I too would like to know more about it.

    To my ear, “for” as a coordinating conjunction de-emphasizes causality and therefore has a hint of correlation or synchronicity, even though the underlying relationship is a causal one.

    My feeling may be similar to Ian’s. […] conjunction-for is *not*, I would argue, equivalent to “because,” “as,” or “since.” Nor do I mean this in the trivial sense that, yes, all words have unique properties. I actually feel there’s a substantial difference

    Huh. Well, of course those who feel that way are entitled to use it to express that difference, though I confess I don’t know what it is.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    Further to marie-lucie’s point, the first appearance of “for” in the KJV NT seems to be Matthew 1:20: “But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.”

    Some recent translations render the last bit as, e.g. (NIV) “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”; others as e.g. (NRSV) “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” That’s pretty much consistent with the overall vibe that the NRSV is often in a more formal register than NIV, even though it purports to eschew actual archaism.

  16. For to is low-register now rather than high-register: “Oh, Susanna, oh don’t you cry for me / I come from Louisiana [luziˈænə], my true love for to see.” One of the few grammatical differences between Boontling and Standard English is the use of for … -ing instead of to + infinitive.

    As it happens, I just read a paper on convergent grammaticalization, a process whereby several different free morphemes all move down the grammaticalization cline and in the process converge, or nearly converge, in meaning. An English example is shall, will, be going to, each with a separate origin but now all expressing the future. The paper addresses the French synthetic future (historically the infinitive plus aver) vs. the aller-future, the Italian passives with essere, venire, andare, and (in most detail) the four current forms of the Romanian future. The conjunctions as, since, because arise from old grammaticalizations; for is short for forthy, the non-question form of for why.

  17. I’m not a native speaker, but to my ears it hits all those adjectives people mentioned so far: “pretentious”, “overwrought”, “old-fashioned’, “translationese-y”, “highfaluting”… However, the sort of thing associated with such descriptors is very often just the sort of thing that I like; and, predictably, I find “for” = “because” to be totally delightful. I use it sparingly (for the same reasons that I love suspenders, but wear them sparingly—it’s for special occasions; use it all the time and it’d lose the charm).

    And yes, I love translationese and the way it weirds language (for a full discussion, cf. Venuti, Scandals of Translation). I hate the adjective “pretentious”; to me it always feels like a contentless criticism of the kind of thing I enjoy the most (“I love the way this videogame combines hand-made artwork, soundtrack, and the gameplay itself so as to convey the author’s depression” “meh. I hate that game, it’s so pretentious” “you mean it’s bad? why, exactly?” “because it’s………pretentious”). I love “overwrought” because it is itself overwrought. I didn’t know “twee”, which to me also sounds self-descriptive, being one of those cute, barbaric sound-symbolic words you Germani use so often; I like it, though I still prefer the sound of “quaint” (such a shame that the superlative is “most twee” and not “tweest”).

  18. While using “for” as a conjunction is certainly elevated style, I find it otherwise unremarkable. I certainly use it in writing, even occasionally in speech. Naturally, I use it less than “because,” “since,” or “as,” but it does show up. It does have a different character from the more common conjunctions of causation, although the differences are certainly subtle.

    Since I happened to have a novel manuscript open on my machine as I started typing this, I decided to look through it to see how I actually use the conjunction “for.” Overall, the word “for” makes up about 0.6% of the text, but in the first 200 or so occurrences of the word, only one was a conjunction:

    They spoke loudly, to show they had no secrets; for secrets and whispers were the prerogative only of the master and his inner confidants.

    I don’t think I would be as happy with any of the alternatives in that sentence.

  19. Phil Jennings says:

    I admit to using ‘being’ in place of ‘because.’ I’ve even written ‘forasmuch as.’ I doubt I’ve ever used ‘for.’
    Lawyers keep some words alive but not others.

  20. LH: I didn’t explain my perception of the difference well, partly because of the problem that “for” is formally a coordinating conjunction but with the implied force of a subordinating conjunction – which seems to be why some writers use it simply as a pseudo-elegant variation on “because”. In the Léon Blum example the distinction (i.e. between greater or lesser emphasis on causality) is arguably so fine as to be meaningless. I’d struggle to find a case where it added a genuinely significant, not merely stylistic, nuance. But I still feel, agreeing with Elessorn, that conjunction “for” is a niche survival worth preserving in literary English.

    marie-lucie: Yes, unquestionably café au lait would have been more likely! But the French family with whom I spent a month of schoolboy French immersion almost 40 years ago drank bowls of tisane for breakfast. I don’t recall if it was explained to me that tisane instead of café au lait was a minority practice, but this has forever biased my view of French breakfasts.

  21. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    I’m not a native speaker, and perhaps I have been too exposed to archaic prose, but to my ears for still has its uses. In Paxton’s passage about Blum I find it stilted and I agree since would be more natural. But in Petroski’s passage about bags and mousetraps cited by John Cowan I find it perfectly natural, and I find that substituting because, as, or since would detract from the sentence.

  22. > does “for” = “because” annoy you

    As a native speaker of a language (Danish) which has both a subordinating (fordi) and a coordinating (for) conjunction, I kinda want there to be both in English as well, although I realize that distinction is harder to make syntactically in English.

    I think in speech, I more or less use “because” with some level of stress on “cause” as the subordinating one, and “cuz” without stress as the coordinating one. But it does kind of annoy me that there’s no good option for the coordinating one in writing.

  23. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    “For” is my go-to translation for γάρ. Maybe it is “Old High Translationese” but I don’t really notice it. Maybe dainichi’s suggested “cuz” would be more idiomatic. I’m still getting used to the singular “they” in modern Bible translations.

    “For to” is found in America’s “A Horse with No Name” in the line: “‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.” Not being familiar with the idiom, I once thought the seemingly extraneous “for” was metrical gibberish, like tra-la-la.

  24. (30-something Brit.) I don’t think I use it myself, but it doesn’t feel markedly formal or archaic to me, at least in any even slightly literary context. If you’d asked me to pick out hints of archaism in the original example sentence, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have noticed for as a candidate.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Ian: the French family with whom I spent a month of schoolboy French immersion almost 40 years ago drank bowls of tisane for breakfast

    Indeed a minority practice!

  26. LH: But do you still find it irksome or annoying when people sing to you, “For he’s a jolly good fellow which nobody can deny?” … Seriously though, I’m not a native speaker, but I’ve only come across “for” in this sense in the written word. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard people use it in everyday talk either.

  27. The word tisane is an interesting one. The dictionaries agree that it has final stress and is a BATH word: that is, the stressed vowel is [ɑː] in BrE and [æ] in AmE. (There is a minority AmE pronunciation with initial stress.) But this is a very unusual stress pattern for such an old borrowing, first recorded in the OED about 1400. Indeed, until I looked, I assumed it was fairly modern and would have the opposite alternation, like pasta, which is TRAP in BrE, PALM in AmE. There is also an alternative spelling ptisan(e) directly < Latin < Greek πτισάνη 'pearl barley': the word originally meant 'barley-water' before being extended to herbal infusions other than tea proper.

    For to as the infinitive marker is actually quite natural in English. When an infinitive has a subject, like I had hoped for George to drive me to the airport, it can be marked with the preposition for, though other verbs don’t require it, as in I wanted (for) George to drive me to the airport. On e of Puddleston’s insights is that English prepositions can be used in three ways: as heads of clauses (so-called subordinating conjunctions), as heads of noun phrases, and objectless, with lexically-specific restrictions on which ones can be used how. For whatever reason, though, the standard language rejected objectless for in for to in favor of simple to.

  28. They spoke loudly, to show they had no secrets; for secrets and whispers were the prerogative only of the master and his inner confidants.

    Well, that’s the sort of high rhetorical context I mentioned in my post, so it fits in quite naturally. I don’t mean to say there’s no place for it in the language, just that it’s used more widely than feels right to me.

  29. As an American, I don’t think I’ve heard tisane with [æ], and if I had I’d have assumed like John Cowan that it was a British pronunciation. But maybe I’ve only heard the word from the mouth of Hercule Poirot.

  30. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Puddleston = Pullum + Huddleston? I can’t tell if it’s a typo or their ‘ship name. On the merits, I have no problem with ‘for … to’, but it’s ‘for to’ that’s not part of my language.

  31. As an American, I don’t think I’ve heard tisane with [æ], and if I had I’d have assumed like John Cowan that it was a British pronunciation.

    Same here; I asked my wife, and she says it with [ɑː]. I confess I have rarely if ever heard the word used, which suggests to me that it is not an especially American word; in any case, I suspect the alleged US prevalence of [æ] is overstated.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    LH: They spoke loudly, to show they had no secrets; for secrets and whispers were the prerogative only of the master and his inner confidants.

    I agree with you here. It would be different in, for instance: They spoke loudly … because they wanted to be heard from the adjoining room.

    Because seems to be more prevalent if the cause is limited to the situation described. Since would imply that the causal element was already known when the situation occurred: They spoke loudly … since they wanted to be heard … (they knew they wanted to be heard before they started to speak).

    The temporal sense of since merges with its (historically later?) causal sense to explain its frequent use as the first word in a clause preceding the main one: Since they wanted to be heard …, they spoke loudly. Because can also be used this way, but less often (and not in casual speech). But for cannot.

  33. Pullum and Huddleston, exactly; specifically the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and the associated textbook.

    The grammaticalizations I mentioned above are: as < also < all so; since < sithen ‘afterward’ < OE sið ðam ‘after that’ plus the adverbial genitive (as in towards, forwards, etc.); and because < by cause < L causa.

  34. AJP Krone says:

    I’ve never heard the word tisane used in England or America, but if I did, I’d expect it to be pronounced the same way as artiSAN, which I believe is the English pronunciation (I can no longer speak for the Scots, Welsh & Irish because Brexit).

    dainichi: Danish has both a subordinating (fordi) and a coordinating (for) conjunction – Thanks. I remember asking literally millions of Norwegians if there was any difference and they all said no. Bastards.

  35. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed when I saw “for” used. So it certainly doesn’t grate.

    But since shipping was mentioned, it seems apropos that those coordinating conjunctions from the first according to one of my colleagues can be mnemonicised as FANBOYS. (Even if shipping is more often considered in the remit of fangirls.)

  36. Hat, I agree with your perception that it sounds a bit “high-falutin'” to use “for”, but it’s never particularly annoyed me. If I found it used in combination with other types of puffery I would find it offputting, but I’ve found examples where I could only marvel at the author’s ability to use it naturally in prose. I would find that hard to pull off.

  37. Do English as well and Spanish también share any historical connection, or are they unrelated parallel grammaticalizations?

  38. Unrelated, I suspect. Here are the earliest OED cites for the English phrase:

    a. Also, in addition; in the same way.
    In early use often introducing an additional element in a sentence; later more usually following the additional element.

    c1384 in R. W. Chambers & M. Daunt Bk. London Eng. (1931) 231 (MED), Forseyng that, As well vndyr the seyd Hall, parlour, And kechyn, botery, And All the seyd Chambres, be selered vndurnethe the Grunde xij fote in heygh.
    a1387 J. Trevisa tr. R. Higden Polychron. (St. John’s Cambr.) (1865) I. 423 Euery fysshe one eyed is; So fareþ as wel in Albania þe Milewel.
    a1400 (▸c1303) R. Mannyng Handlyng Synne (Harl.) 536 As she dyde, he dyde yn dede;..Ryȝt as she dede, he dede as weyl.
    c1475 tr. C. de Pisan Livre du Corps de Policie (Cambr.) (1977) 92 (MED), It behoueth to him..not only to haue his hondis and his tonge cloos but as well his yen.
    c1550 Complaynt Scotl. (1979) 1 As veil it bringis furtht..hoilsum frute of honour.
    a1631 J. Donne Paradoxes (1652) sig. D6v, They should love their brothers aswel.

  39. J.W. Brewer says:

    Higgledy-piggledy
    Pullum and Huddleston
    DA-da-da DA-da-da
    DA-da-da DA . . .

  40. “This happened because the prophet X predicted it” would sound ordinary and does not have the added resonance of “…. for the prophet X predicted it”.

    “This happened for the prophet predicted it” is ungrammatical, I’d say. For is a coordinator, not a subordinator, so a for-clause can’t be the focus of an utterance. (It’s like Greek γάρ in this way, which is often best translated “you see”.)

  41. I have no trouble with “This will happen, for the prophet predicted it”, but the comma is essential (or the coordination intonation, in speech). It does not mean the same as “This will happen because the prophet predicted it”, which would make the prophecy the cause of the event rather than the reason I affirm it.

  42. J.W. Brewer says:

    A more common KJV-register way to make the point would be e.g. to say such-and-such occurred “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.” (Mt. 21:4, Englishing “ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τοῦ προφήτου”).

  43. Only now I realized that this “for” is not only typical of purple prose, but also features proëminently in the immortal parenthetical of the Purple Prose, the one, the only, the inimitable:

    It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

  44. @leoboiko: I assume from the diaeresis that that was supposed to be “preëminently”; however, my curiosity was piqued. Unfortunately, the words “proeminent” and “proeminently” are unknown to the OED, although French Wiktionary finds “proéminent,” with an unsurprising definition of simply “prominent.”

  45. marie-lucie says:

    TR, JC: I quite agree that …, for the prophet predicted it needs a preceding comma which I would have added if I had repeated the whole sentence.

    pr∂eminent: In my speech at least, French proéminent has the concrete meaning of “prominent” (like a feature of a landscape) not that of “preeminent” (like a deservedly famous person).

  46. I just realized that the same novel I’m working on also includes a direct reference to Bulwer-Lytton:

    It turned out to be an old-fashioned historical romance, set in a classical resort on the Mediterranean Sea. The plot was populated with standard character archetypes—a noble poet, a lazy gamester who made his living gambling off his friends, and a sinister Egyptian foreigner. Yarec read for a while and found he was getting bored. The story seemed to be missing something—as if it were supposed to have illustrations that were not there.

    I may edit this out, since it’s a bit self indulgent, projecting my own dissatisfaction with editions of The Last Days of Pompeii onto my protagonist. The point is that there was a subtext to the novel that is generally lost on modern readers (and may have been lost on most readers, even when it was first published). Several of the main characters were created as occupants of specific houses that had been excavated at the site, and the way their homes were decorated provides significant insights into the characters. For example, the protagonist Glaucus lives in the House of the Tragic Poet.

  47. @Brett: I’m a Romance speaker (Portuguese: proeminente), so I wanted to type “proeminent”. The spellchecker helpfully informed me that the proper English spelling is “prominent”. But I was feeling purple / metallic, and decided to leave the “e” and add some arbitrary diacritic to boot.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    I think I’ve seen for used instead of because as a means to save space. It reminds me of Lucky Luke saying qui eût cru instead of the perfectly standard qui aurait cru to save space.

    I’ve also seen it in scientific prose clearly written by nonnative speakers. I don’t use it myself, for I do not aspire to writing literature or bombastic speeches. (Bombast can be done right – I actually like explosions –, but that’s so hard to pull off that the very attempt has fallen out of fashion.)

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