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.

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Grammar quiz

From time to time, websites such as MSN and Yahoo challenge their readers to quizzes on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. These quizzes are often written more to stump than to educate, so the questions are worded in confusing ways, and the answers are masked in vagueness to the point where even those who know the answer get the question wrong.

A recent grammar quiz was so chock full of errors that I, being on the nitpicky side of things myself, felt a need to address. Let’s look at the directions first, followed by each question individually.

Directions

Judge the quality of the writing in the questions below. Look for wordiness, misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, incorrect word choice, and problems with parallelism and punctuation. Potential errors are underlined.

Considering this is a grammar quiz, I take issue with the first sentence. Grammar comprises morphology and syntax, neither of which has much to do with the quality of a person’s writing. I’ve known plenty of people who have good syntax whose writing leaves much to be desired.

The second sentence of the directions gives a laundry list of potential errors: “wordiness, misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, incorrect word choice, and problems with parallelism and punctuation.” Some of these issues are related to grammar, namely misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, and problems with parallelism. Wordiness, incorrect word choice, and punctuation have nothing to do with grammar and should have been left out of this quiz. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so picky; after all, grammar has come to be used as an umbrella term for everything an editor or red-pen-happy teacher might change or judge about our use of language.

Question 1

As the gamekeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (a), enjoying the great outdoors (b) was easy for Hagrid (c) and his magical creatures.
a) The error is here.
b) The error is here.
c) The error is here.
d) The sentence is correct.

The answer to this one is easy. Since the subject of the main clause is enjoying, it should be the noun that the first phrase modifies. But enjoying is not the gamekeeper of Hogwarts; Hagrid is. Therefore, we have a misplaced modifier. Easy enough.

But what’s up with the sentence in the first place? “Enjoying the great outdoors was easy for Hagrid and his magical creatures?” Have you heard anyone talk like that before? I mean, really. Enjoying reading is easy for me. Talk about wordiness (which, as I recall, is one of the things we’re supposed to be looking for). It’s obvious the awkward sentence was concocted just so it could have a misplaced modifier.

Question 2

The reason she’s (a) sleeping is because (b) she’s tired (c).

Note: In the future, I won’t include the options with the question since they are identical to the ones in question 1.

The answer to this question is b. The reasoning, according to grammar police, is that it’s redundant to use “the reason is” with “because,” since they define because as “for the reason that.” The correct wording would be, “The reason is . . . that. . . . ” (There are convoluted, ultimately groundless grammatical arguments against the phrase as well, which I’ll spare you for the sake of keeping this post as brief as possible.)

I, on the other hand, firmly believe that there is nothing wrong with the construction. It’s only redundant insomuch as you define because in precisely that way. But if you look at Merriam Webster’s second definition of because, you’ll see that it can also mean “the fact that.” Also note that this exact construction is used as an example.

One good way to tell whether a usage rule is worth anything is to see whether the alternative is more awkward than the “bad” usage. For instance, the admonition against ending sentences with prepositions often results in horrid workarounds that are harder to understand than the original, preposition-ending version would have been. In this case, I’d wager that if you tried to change “because” to “that” in your speech whenever you use “the reason is,” you’d find it surprisingly awkward and difficult to do. This is another example of pedants frowning on a natural, comfortable way of wording a sentence just because it makes them feel smart to have “noticed” the “error.”

Question 3

The three-piece suit (a) was taken to the dry cleaner (b) by the maid, (c) but picked up by the butler.

This question has several problems. The error in section b is “was taken,” which is a passive construction. Never mind that passive voice isn’t necessarily wrong or that it’s nearly impossible to tell whether it’s appropriate or not out of context. Brockenbrough warned us in her directions that we should look for passive voice, so it’s fair game in this question. But the bigger problem is that “[was] picked up by the butler” is also passive, so c is an equally acceptable answer. Too bad the quiz only allows you to pick one.

Finally, the comma before “but picked up” is unnecessary. Commas are needed before conjunctions only when the conjunctions link two complete sentences. “Picked up by the butler” is a verb phrase, not a sentence, so the comma should have been left out.

Question 4

I’m a (a) cowboy (b), on a steel horse I ride (c).

Are you stumped by this one? So was I. The obvious error is the comma, which should be a semicolon. But it’s not underlined. That makes “cowboy” and “on a steel horse I ride” equal contenstants, since they surround the error. I picked the latter, since, I figured, if it had a conjunction of some kind in it, the comma would be all right. I should have picked the former, I guess because it’s closer to the comma. Maybe it was just a typo, and the comma should have been included in the underlining for “cowboy.” It’s a pretty sloppy typo for a quiz that compares itself to the SAT, though.

Question 5

They’re (a) dream house burned (b) to the ground last week (c).

This is a good question. I’ve seen some pretty intelligent people mix up there, they’re, and their. (The answer is a, by the way.)

Question 6

Rarely is (a) the question asked, (b) “Is our children (c) learning?”

Did anyone actually miss this one? If you’re like most people, “Is our children” sounds positively alien to your ears, as well it should. Many actual grammatical errors sound like this one. Believe it or not, you know English grammar pretty well. You know that children are, not is, for instance, without looking it up or second-guessing yourself. You’d probably know just as well that “Our is children learning?” is bad grammar. My biggest beef with this question is that it seems too easy to belong on this test.

Beyond that, “Rarely is the question asked” is a passive construction. If you’re supposed to correct the passive in question 3, why not in this question as well?

Question 7

The general consensus (a) is that elephants mourn (b) their dead (c).

If you want to be really picky, you’ll notice that a consensus is already general, so the word general is redundant. It’s like talking about a big elephant. At the same time, I don’t personally mind if people say “general consensus” (or “big elephant,” for that matter) for many of the same reasons I don’t have a problem with “the reason is because.” There’s a shade of difference, at least for me, between consensus and general consensus. After all, a consensus among experts isn’t the same as a general consensus. Sometimes it’s important to distinguish that a particular elephant is the big one; sometimes it isn’t. It’s impossible to say out of context whether something that appears redundant actually is.

Question 8

Look besides (a) the television; (b) the phone book is there (c).

I have the same problem with this that I had with question 6. No native English speaker would ever make this mistake. As such, it’s a pointless, unchallenging question.

Question 9

The professor taught John and I (a) the difference between (b) right and wrong (c).

This is the best question in the whole quiz, in my opinion. It’s tricky because everyone’s been taught that you’re supposed to say “John and I,” not “John and me.” Right? But take John out of the sentence. Suddenly it becomes clear that “The professor taught I” is wrong. Sometimes it’s right to say “John and me,” and this is one of those times.

I’m so thrilled that she included this question that I won’t nitpick the fact that I hope most people learn the difference between right and wrong before they get to college.

Question 10

Known by some as “terrible lizards,” carnivorous dinosaurs ate meat, laid eggs, and tore the flesh of their prey with sharp claws and teeth.

Did you catch that pesky passive again? “Known by some” is apparently less appalling to Brockenbrough than “was taken by the maid” because the answer to this question is that there’s nothing wrong with it. Not that I have a problem with the passive, of course, but let’s be consistent at least.

And if you’re going to frown on apparent redundancies like “the reason is because” and “general consensus,” then surely you’ll take issue with “carnivorous dinosaurs ate meat.” Also, the sentence seems to imply that only carnivorous dinosaurs laid eggs and were known as terrible lizards, when both of these facts apply to all dinosaurs. Finally, tearing the flesh of prey is something that all carnivores do, so it is doubly redundant. Here’s a perfect example of a sentence with decent grammar yet much to be desired in the quality of the writing.

The moral of the story, dear readers, is that you shouldn’t trust everything you read on the internet. We’re all pretty self-conscious that our use of English will make us sound dumb to some grammarian who might be listening in, but here’s a secret: sometimes it’s the grammarians who make mistakes. There, doesn’t that make you feel better about the time your third-grade teacher wrote all over your report with red pen?

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