Arrant Pedantry

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The Reason Why This Is Correct

There’s a long-running debate over whether the construction reason why is acceptable. Critics generally argue that why essentially means reason, so saying reason why is like saying reason twice. Saying something twice is redundant, and redundancy is bad; ergo, reason why is bad. This is really a rather bizarre argument. Reason is a noun; why is usually an interrogative adverb. They do cover some of the same semantic space, but not the same syntactic space. Does this really make the construction redundant? Defendants generally admit that it’s redundant, but in a harmless way. But rebutting the critics by calling it “not ungrammatical” or saying that “redundancy is not inherently bad” is a pretty weak defense. However, that defense can be strengthened with the addition of something that has been missing from the discussion: an examination of the syntactic role of why in such constructions.

Nearly every discussion on reason why that I’ve ever seen—including Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and Garner’s Modern American Usage—leaves out this very important syntactic component. The only exceptions that I’ve seen are this post on the Grammarphobia blog and this one on Daily Writing Tips, which both mention that why is a conjunction. The writers at Grammarphobia argue that reason why is not actually redundant because of why’s syntactic role, but Mark Nichol at Daily Writing Tips seems much more confused about the issue. He says that even though reason why has been around for centuries and only came under fire in the twentieth century, he’ll continue to avoid it in his own writing “but will forgive the combination when I am editing that of others” (how magnanimous). But he doesn’t understand why reason why is okay but reason is because is not, because both why and because are conjunctions.

I won’t get into reason is because here, but suffice it to say that these are very different constructions. As I mentioned in my previous post on relative pronouns and adverbs, why functions as a relative adverb, but it appears almost exclusively after the word reason. (To be clear, all relative pronouns and adverbs can be considered conjunctions because they connect a subordinate clause—the relative clause—to a main one.) In a phrase like the reason why this is correct, why connects the relative clause this is correct to the noun it modifies, reason. Relative pronouns refer to a noun phrase, while relative adverbs refer to some kind of adverbial phrase. As with any relative clause, you can extract a main clause out of the relative clause by replacing the relative pronoun or adverb and doing a little rearranging (that’s the man who I met > I met the man), though with relative adverbs you often have to add in a function word or two: the reason why this is correct > this is correct for this reason. This is pretty obvious when you think about it. A phrase like the reason why this is correct contains another clause—this is correct. There has to be something to connect it syntactically to the rest of the phrase.

In defending the construction, Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar compares it to the redundancy in The person who left their wet swimsuit on my books is going to pay. This is actually a more apt comparison than Mr. Doyle realizes, because he doesn’t make the connection between the relative pronoun who and the relative adverb why. He argues that it is just as redundant as reason why (and therefore not a problem), because who means person in a sense.

But as I said above, this isn’t really redundancy. Who is a relative pronoun connecting a clause to a noun phrase. If who means the same thing as person, it’s only because that’s its job as a pronoun. Pronouns are supposed to refer to other things in the sentence, and thus they mean the same thing. Why works much the same way. Why means the same thing as reason only because it refers to it.

So what about reason that or just plain reason? Again, as I discussed in my last post on relative pronouns and adverbs, English has two systems of relativization: the wh words and that, and that is omissible except where it functions as the subject of the relative clause. Thus we have the option of saying the reason why this is correct, the reason that this is correct (though that sounds awkward in some instances), or just plain the reason this is correct (again, this is occasionally awkward). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language also mentions the possibility the reason for which, though this also sounds awkward and stilted in most cases. But I suspect that many awkward plain reasons are the result of editorial intervention, as in this case I found in the research for my thesis: There are three preliminary reasons why the question of rationality might make a difference in the context of Leibniz’s thought.

It’s important to note, though, that there are some constructions in which why is more superfluous. As Robert Lane Greene noted on the Johnson blog, sometimes why is used after reason without a following relative clause. (Mr. Greene calls it a complement clause.) He gives the example I’m leaving your father. The reason why is that he’s a drunk. The why here doesn’t really serve a syntactic function, since it’s not introducing a clause, though the Oxford English Dictionary calls this an elliptical construction. In essence, the why is serving as a placeholder for the full relative clause: I’m leaving your father. The reason why (I’m leaving him) is that he’s a drunk. It’s not strictly necessary to delete the why here, though it is generally colloquial and may not sound right in formal writing.

But this is by no means a blanket injunction against reason why. I think the rule forbidding reason why probably arose out of simple grammatical misanalysis of this relative construction, or perhaps by broadening a ban on elliptical reason why into a ban on all instances of reason why. Whatever the reason for the ban, it’s misguided and should be laid to rest. Reason why is not only not ungrammatical or harmlessly redundant, but it’s a legitimately correct and fully grammatical construction. Just because there are other options doesn’t mean one is right and the rest are wrong.

13 Responses to The Reason Why This Is Correct

  1. Catterel says:

    A very common phrase in the UK is “the reason being” as in: “I’m selling my house, the reason being I’m broke” or even “… the reason being is I’m broke” which – illogical as it seems – is gaining in currency. Ouch!

  2. BZ says:

    @Catterel,
    I don’t think it’s a UK thing. I’ve been hearing this construction in the US in both colloquial speech and on TV as far back as I can remember.

    And it doesn’t make sense to me either. In fact “the reason being” sounds strange in any context.

  3. As BZ says, it’s common in the US too, mostly in speech. I don’t think it’s necessarily ungrammatical, except perhaps when it’s followed by is, as in the second example. But I have to confess that I’ve never really considered the grammar of it, and it doesn’t appear in the major usage dictionaries that I have. I’ll have to put it on my to-investigate list.

  4. David C says:

    Calling something harmlessly redundant can be damning with faint praise. Redundancy is a perfectly acceptable feature of language and even, in many cases, necessary.

  5. Exactly, and that’s what Gabe Doyle and others are arguing. But I’m going further and saying that I don’t think reason why is redundant or even idiomatic. It’s just a normal structural feature of the language.

  6. Alon says:

    @BZ, Jonathon: “the reason being” seems to me simply an absolute construction, like the Latin ablative absolute or the infamous “well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”.

  7. David C says:

    Jonathon Owen has it. Grammar is not a set of rules imposed from without; it’s a pattern of the way the language works. If any attempts at stating the grammar of a language don’t match the way the language works the fault lies not in the language but in the grammar.

  8. Alon: That’s what I was thinking, too.

    David C: Well said.

  9. John Roth says:

    I found myself scratching my head over this one until I realized that you are using a rather different grammatical analysis than the one I’m used to. At the moment I’m using Huddleston and Pullum’s “A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar,” which is derived from their CGEL.

    They would analyze “why this is correct” as an open interrogative content clause; why is then simply the mandatory question word in this type of clause. It’s not any kind of relative clause.

    Using this analysis, the construction makes perfect sense. It’s posing the issue to be explained as a question: “Why is this correct?” It could be posed just as well as a declarative content clause using (or eliding) that: “The reason that this is correct.” That in this construction is a subordinating conjunction (subordinator). The difference is purely one of style.

  10. webdan76 says:

    The reason “why” this is correct (is that…)
    =
    This is correct “thanks to” the reason (that…)

    “This is correct the reason” makes no sense.

    So, “The reason why this is correct”
    is not only not ungrammatical or redundant,
    but it’s completely correct too.

    Great post, Jonathon.
    I completely agree with you.

  11. John: That’s odd. Why would they use a completely different analysis in a different book? Either way, though, the key point is that why is filling a grammatical role and is not redundant.

    webdan76: Thanks!

  12. Bill T says:

    The Reason Why This Is Correct?Theirs not to make reply,/ Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die:/ Into the valley of Death/ Rode the six hundred. —Alfred, Lord Tennyson

  13. David C says:

    Only problem there is “reason” is used as a verb in this example.

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