ADS WOTY: "Because"

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I wasn't able to attend the ADS WOTY vote yesterday evening, but I understand it was a first-round landslide for because, beating out Slash, twerk, Obamacare, and  selfie. According to the ADS announcement,

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” [Ben] Zimmer 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!’”

You can hear Ben Zimmer discussing the run-up to the vote a couple of days ago on NPR's Morning Edition ("American Dialect Society To Vote On Word Of The Year", 12/31/2013), and no doubt we'll have additional coverage later, but meanwhile there's some discussion from last summer in "Because NOUN", 7/12/2013.

Geoff Pullum's comment: "I'm pleased to see a preposition win an award like this for once; nouns have had it far too easy."

Update — The cases with adjectives strike me as less innovative than the because NOUN examples are. Some relevant traditional (conjunction-like) examples:

A thousand vague fancies oppressed and disconcerted me-fancies the more distressing because vague.
Lacking that safe spot, conversations with Clarence could be scary, because unscripted.
Not showy and glittery like the peeling palaces along the Grand Canal, once glamorous beauties now slipping into their dotage, this campo was authentic Venice, surviving because unvisited.
He is called a "black sheep, and his "shabby frock-coat" supplies us with the word frock, which Skeat derives from "Flock:" "Probably so called because woollen ."
A thousand vague fancies oppressed and disconcerted me — fancies the more distressing because vague.

From 1820: This would at least be honest, though I think it would be unwise, because unnecessary.
From 1834: Still does he sometimes introduce into his speeches bursts of eloquence, which stir the heart like the voice of a trumpet, and are the more stirring because unexpected.
From 1840: The storm of war has rolled off to distant borders; or if, indeed, it be lowering near again, its terrors are unfelt, because unseen .

 Update #2 — Commentary by Stan Carey, "‘Because’ is the 2013 Word of the Year, because woo! Such win"; by Arika Okrent, "The American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year is 'Because'"; Gretchen McCulloch, "Why the new 'because' isn’t a preposition (but is actually cooler)".

Also, Laura Bailey's because usage survey.

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41 Comments »

  1. leoboiko said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

    I think this 2011 comic is the first time I saw "because of reasons"; I don't know if it's original, but it became a minor meme.

    I didn't know it had crossbred with "of-less because" to create "because reasons."

    COCA has no hit for either (when followed by a period) but GloWbE has a few (13 with "of", 3 of-less); all seem to be post-2011.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    Among the more annoying ripostes one can encounter after one has made a carefully argued point and one's opponent disagrees with what one has said, he explains why he disagrees with a curt "because" or "just because". This is a usage that I remember from my childhood days. Here we don't even have "because OF" or "because NOUN" or "because CLAUSE", but simply "because NULL".

  3. Zythophile said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

    Victor – today that annoying (parental) riposte would presumably be "because because".

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

    The structure with "because [adjective]" – like "because tired" or "because useful" in the quote from Ben Zimmer – is completely normal in German. I've always thought of it as a kind of reduced clause. Here are a couple of examples plucked almost at random off the web just now:

    Hier ist wieder mein Rat, den ich öfter gebe, weil sinnvoll

    "Here's my advice again – advice I often give, because sensible"

    or

    meine ganzen "normalen" duschgels sind nimmer wirklich verwendbar, weil unangenehm.

    "All my 'normal' shower gels are never really usable, because uncomfortable"

    Seems odd that English is only just catching up.

  5. Craig said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

    @Zythophile The drive toward economy for this usage of "because" would probably resist reduplication; the more bare something in the clause that follows, the more it presumes a strong specific meaning, with the added bonus of fusing the general with the prototypical for emphasis.

  6. Faldone said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

    I see in Zythophile's supposition the following conversation:

    Child: Why can't I?
    Mommy: Because

    C: Because why?

    M: Because because.

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

    Does Geoff Pullum really think of "because" (traditionally classified as a conjunction) as a preposition? Is that one of those CGEL innovations? Or does he just mean the newish of-less use?
    To an old fogy like me this is reminiscent of the style once (or is it still?) known as telegraphic, as in CAN'T COME BECAUSE SICK STOP.

  8. Lazar said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    So am I correct in thinking that there's an older usage of "because [adjective]" which predates the newer use of "because [noun]"? I seem to recall seeing things like "the application was rejected because invalid".

    [(myl) Indeed -- see the forms cited in the Update above.]

  9. Bessel Dekker said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

    The "because +[adj]" examples all seem to involve ellipsis: in Mark's 1820/1834/1840 examples it is endophoric (a form of "to be" is recoverable from the cotext), whereas the undated examples all show parallelism: there is an earlier adjective in the construction. But here the ellipsis is exophoric: the earlier adjective is not introduced by a copula. The same would go for "can't come because sick". So similar to the German construction (Bob Ladd's comment) these seem to be cases of a "reduced clause".

    In the "because +[noun]" construction, ellipsis seems less likely: somehow it is indeed simpler to regard "this "because" as a preposition, similar to "because of".

  10. Eric P Smith said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

    @Coby Lubliner

    Yes, Geoff Pullum classes “because the meeting ended”, “before the meeting ended”, “after the meeting ended”, “if the meeting ended”, “since the meeting ended”, and “although the meeting ended” as prepositional phrases headed by prepositions. Pullum and Huddleston spend 3 pages in Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) (pp 1011 to 1014) defending this treatment. Their main points are: (a) “before the meeting ended” is equivalent to “before the end of the meeting”, and the difference in complementation does not justify a primary part-of-speech distinction; and (b) items like “before” which occur with both kinds of complement take the same range of pre-head modifiers with both kinds of complement, eg “an hour before the end of the meeting” and “an hour before the meeting ended”. They extend this treatment to phrases like “except that the meeting ended”, regarding “except” as a preposition and “that the meeting ended” as its complement. Likewise “provided that the meeting ended”, “in order that the meeting ended”, and “notwithstanding that the meeting ended”.

    I too class myself as an old fogy, and yet as a student of Geoff Pullum's a few years ago I found myself being won round to his point of view on this.

  11. D.O. said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 9:15 pm

    Russian also has universal answer of the form "потому, что кончается на у", which can be roughly translated as "because it ends in cause". Of course, in Russian it helps that the standard question to elicit such response is "почему?" (why?), which also ends in "у". In English, because and why have nothing in common…

  12. Alexander said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 9:41 pm

    Is there a sustained defense of the claim that "They were uninteresting because vague" is elliptical for "The were uninteresting because they were is vague." The ellipsis is not of a 'normal' variety, for two reasons. One, it is of a nonconstituent, comprising the subject plus a copula: "The were uninteresting because *(they) were vague." Two, it is not generally possible: "They were uninteresting because Bob said *(they were) vague. Jason Merchant recognized these eccentricities when he recently proposed this sort of ellipis this for certain fragments, such as "(These are) ginkos." I also don't see the motive for ellipsis, when one can say things like "Few will taste delicious when rotten."

  13. Stan said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 4:34 am

    Because [ADJ] can seem less novel on account of the traditional elliptical construction, since the two are superficially very similar. But they feel significantly different because the new construction often isn't eliding particular and predictable words; it's substituting for a whole (often vague) train of thought, as it does in analogous exx. with NPs and interjections.
    So I find because [ADJ] more prototypical of the recent construction: re-innovated, rather than a throwback. (I discussed this briefly, with several examples of both types, in a blog post on because X last year.)

    [(myl) I'm unconvinced by the ellipsis theory -- these examples seem much more conjunction-like to me. Consider one of the examples given in the (update to the) original post: "This campo was authentic Venice, surviving because unvisited".

    If the ellipsis theory were correct, then it ought to be equally good to write things like "*This campo survives because [it is] unvisited" (with the [it is] elided). But it isn't.

    The traditional "because ADJECTIVE" (or more accurately, "because PREDICATIVE") examples work just in case they're in a construction of the form "ADJECTIVE because ADJECTIVE" — in such examples, because really seems to be a sort of subordinating conjunction, but of adjectives not clauses. Why an analogous construction doesn't traditionally exist for noun phrases is unclear.]

  14. Stan said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 6:49 am

    And see Gretchen McCulloch, at All Things Linguistic: 'Why the new “because” isn’t a preposition (but is actually cooler)'.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 8:29 am

    I was going to say exactly the same thing as Bessel Dekker about those old examples (they involve recoverable ellipsis). This is a a notion that we need to apply in Chinese grammatical analysis too. It would work very well with some of the problems we've been discussing here:

    "Words / Characters of the Year" for 2013 in Taiwan and in China

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=9334

  16. Bloix said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    But as I understand it the usage is always ironic and dismissive. Here's an example from just this morning:

    Amazing. Bill Kristol is hoping that, after a full century of unwillingness to go to war, because Wilfred Owen, this might be the year we consider – maybe! – going to some war.

    http://crookedtimber.org/2014/01/05/some-desperate-glory/

  17. Alex said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 9:47 am

    I like that "sharknado" won "most unnecessary." I'm sure there are less necessary words out there, but there can't be many.

    As for origins, I think that Twitter is a possibility what with people trying to cram sentences into 140 characters. It might not be where the usage started, but it may have helped create a need for such a construction.

  18. Sili said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

    "slash"? – isn't that a bit late, or has it acquired a new meaning?

    Interesting that "feels" didn't make the list.

  19. Milan said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

    @Bloix: For adult speakers the use is mostly ironic, deliberately highlighting the vagueness of the causality claim. However, I think I've read somewhere (the best kind of evidence, I know) that young children, pre-teens are adopting the usage without the ironic twist.

  20. Viseguy said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

    @Bloix ("But as I understand it the usage is always ironic and dismissive"):

    It may have started out that way, but I think it's now used more neutrally as well (as in, "Can't party tonight, because exams"). I wonder, though, whether, ironic or otherwise, the usage is endemic to tweets and texts, and relatively rare in face-to-face conversations. Conversationally, "because x" strikes me as a bit odd or forced (unless, perhaps, used ironically/dismissively, or in air quotes), but maybe that's just me — because old.

  21. julie lee said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

    tidbit:
    In Modern Chinese (Mod. Mandarin) , the word for "because" is "yinwei/yinwei 因為" (literally
    "cause be"). In Classical Chinese, "because" is "yin因" ("cause"), as in modern AmEng vernacular,
    " 'cos" or " 'cause".

  22. Lazar said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    @Viseguy: Yeah, I can use it non-ironically in written form, but I don't use it in speech at all. I tend to make a firm distinction between netspeak usages and real-life usages.

  23. Adrian said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

    Geoffrey Pullum is entitled to his opinion – indeed he is more entitled than most – but I think he's too extreme in his unwillingness to tolerate alternative categorisations.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    @Alexander

    Is there a sustained defense of the claim that "They were uninteresting because vague" is elliptical for "The were uninteresting because they were is vague."

    I don't think anyone is attempting to make any sort of claim for "The were uninteresting because they were is vague." As you have written it, that sentence is gravely defective in at least two major regards, so I can't imagine anyone wanting to defend it as recovering a form that preceded ellipsis.

    @Viseguy

    "Can't party tonight, because exams" < "I can't party tonight because of exams" OR "I can't party tonight because I have exams".

    Ergo, in instances such as this, "because" = / < "because of" OR "because VERB PHRASE".

  25. Mar Rojo said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

    Does anyone here want to take GKP on in a detailed way?

  26. Belial said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    I kind of wish GKP had signed off his post "Comments are closed because trolls."

  27. Bessel Dekker said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

    “(myl) I'm unconvinced by the ellipsis theory — these examples seem much more conjunction-like to me. Consider one of the examples given in the (update to the) original post: "This campo was authentic Venice, surviving because unvisited".”

    I agree that these examples seem conjunction-like. But why? Precisely because a subject and a copula have been elided, hence “because” feels like a conjunction leading to a reduced clause (to quote Bob Ladd once more). And it does not seem to matter much whether the ellipsis is exophoric or endophoric: if it is exophoric, this is because there is parallelism, and the earlier adjective phrase presupposes exophoric ellipsis as well.

    “If the ellipsis theory were correct, then it ought to be equally good to write things like "*This campo survives because [it is] unvisited" (with the [it is] elided). But it isn't.”

    Not necessarily. If “because”+[adj] involves ellipsis, typically of [subj]+”BE”, it does not follow that any “because”+[subj]+”BE” construction can be ellipted. It just means that where the shorter construction does occur, there is some such ellipsis.

    “in such examples, because really seems to be a sort of subordinating conjunction, but of adjectives not clauses”

    This can be maintained only if you assume that there is no ellipsis in the first place.

    “Why an analogous construction doesn't traditionally exist for noun phrases is unclear.”

    Possibly because conjunction. In “because”+[noun], “because” may be a conjunction after all. Admittedly, Gretchen McCulloch present a strong case against this. In addition, her text raises a few points (notably about emphasis) which would need to be addressed. They baffle me, for the moment at least, and will probably continue doing so.

  28. Mar Rojo said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 4:29 am

    I find myself agreeing with Bessel.

  29. Milan said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    I'm probably a bit late here, but the newer post on "because" has its comments closed, so…
    It's ironic that "because" might be actually evolving into a subordinate conjunction, in the very community that spawned the usage under discussion: Confer this meme: "Just because you spent a large amount of money on something/ does not mean it is good" http://9gag.com/gag/apq3rMM
    Still, it might be just an error (or is it common usage I, as a non-native speaker, am not aware of?)

  30. J said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

    I thought this construction using "because" was just a viral joke…

  31. Zubon said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

    Language Log is no stranger to doing things for reasons.

  32. Bessel Dekker said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    Milan, in his article "Because syntax" Prof. Pullum writes, ". . . in the colloquial Just because he's a Republican doesn't mean he's evil the subject is the phrase beginning just because."

    I'd say the construction is pretty common.

  33. David Morris said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 5:34 am

    Geoffrey Pullum has recently made two attempts to explain why ‘because’ is not a conjunction and why it is a preposition. I strongly but cautiously disagree. Firstly, that it isn’t a conjunction. In “Because syntax” (5 Jan), he compares “because” to “the archetypal members of either class of words [‘subordinating conjunctions’ and ‘coordinating conjunctions’]”. But many words don’t “resemble” archetypal members of their class — for example “beware” is a verb, despite lacking almost every verb form. And his choice of that as archetypal is way off the mark — it is not remotely an archetypal subordinating conjunction; indeed I would not call it a subordinating conjunction at all (I would call it a complementiser — a subordinating conjunction introduces non-obligatory material; a complementiser introduces obligatory material). He says, “In short, because is nothing like that in its syntax or its semantics.” True, because he is comparing apples and oranges.

    Secondly, that it is a preposition — “Contrary to all the dictionaries”. Accepting that “As its complement … it may take … a clause” means accepting that any or all prepositions may take a clause. This simply shifts the issue one step sideways. Geoffrey doesn’t provide an unambiguous example of a preposition taking a clause. He merely states without example: “Some prepositions … require a clause (as although does)”. (If “although” is a preposition, it is an even less typical one than “because” — “I didn’t go to the party because reasons” may be acceptable, but “I went to the party although reasons” is at best highly questionable” and “although of” and "although noun" are plain wrong – only "although adjective" and "although adverb" are acceptable.)

    No-one would disagree that prepositions usually take nouns, noun phrases or pronouns, or that different groups of prepositions can take different groups of nouns, noun phrases or pronouns. In “The promiscuity of prepositions” (8 Jan), Geoffrey canvasses the range of options after prepositions. I accept that prepositions can take “predicative adjectives as reduced forms of their clause complements” and “the long list of idiomatic phrases of Preposition + Adjective, Preposition + Adverb, and Preposition + Preposition forms”.
    But Geoffrey’s other, made-up examples are not helpful or persuasive. All but one is functioning in a non-typical way: there are direct or indirect quotations, chunks of French in English, an adjective as a nominal (“beautiful” — surely Geoffrey isn’t going to claim that “uglies” earlier in the sentence is an adjective) or as an ellipsis of a gerund phrase (“from (feeling) frustrated”). The only typical example is "There is no way to do this except cautiously. [adverb]", but I have no issue with preposition + adverb (as above).

    He later says “To say that prepositions only take NP complements [is anyone actually saying that?] is a misanalysis that commits us to positing three different words spelled after (as in They lived happily after their marriage, They lived happily after they married, and They lived happily ever after), all with essentially the same meaning.” But word classes are not based on “meaning”; they are based on syntactical properties. Everyone accepts “three different words spelled smoking (as in You’re smoking too much these days, There was a smoking cigarette end in the ashtray, and Smoking is bad for you” (cf Swan, Modern English Usage, section 293.1). I would assert that there is one word “after” and one word “smoking”, functioning in three different ways in each case.

    I would assert that there is one word “because” which usually functions as a conjunction, but which can function as a preposition + of. I would assert that the new use of “because + noun” is best analysed as an ellipsis of “because of noun” in the same way that the older use of “because adjective” is best analysed as an ellipsis of “because N/pronoun [be] adjective”.

    I am first an ESL teacher, not a linguist. Almost always in an ESL classroom, explanations have to cut corners, sometimes they are technically incorrect but useful, and occasionally they are plain wrong but useful. Classifying “because” as a conjunction may be plain wrong (but if it is, I’ll need more unambiguous examples), but if it is, it is useful.

  34. Ann said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 7:28 am

    A few Dutch-language websites that have picked up on the ADS WOTY have pointed out a similar phenomenon in that language as well. http://nederl.blogspot.be/2014/01/want-boosverdrietigbekaf.html

    http://www.radio1.be/programmas/nieuwe-feiten/want-opvallende-taalevolutie (cites a usage from 2007)

  35. Glenn Bingham said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 6:11 am

    @David Morris
    I agree that the examples GKP uses in the follow-up post at best are non-typical.

    I agree, on the other hand, with GKP’s main point that a word such as "before" has several uses that might be viewed as different parts of speech. I do not agree that the catch-all category should be called “preposition.” I prefer to call the batch of prepositions, non-productive adverbs (non –ly), verb particles, and subordinators (subordinating conjunctions/dependent words) relational markers. So "before" is a relational marker that can take various complements, just as verbs can take various complements: It takes a null complement, NP, or clause. Respectively, we might say that the relational marker "before" is used as an adverb, preposition, or subordinating conjunction. "Ahead" takes a null complement or a PP. "Behind" takes a null complement, NP, or PP. "Although" takes an adjective, adverb, or a clause, so it is a relational marker not used as a preposition.

    Since prepositions need to contrast with inter-positions in English (time after time, step by step) and contrast with post-positions in other languages, there needs to be something that these are positioned before or in the middle of or after, and that is traditionally NPs. So it is unsettling to speak of a preposition without an NP (allowing for stranding and the like).

    I have been pressed into service teaching such courses as Composition 044, and one can imagine the need to deal with a couple varieties of Spanish, Bengali, Punjabi, and various other challenges. But for all these people trying to figure out what a sentence is, understanding PP’s—the ones associated with NP’s—is the key to unlocking the secrets of subject/verb agreement, basic sentence structure, and several other fundamentals. Using the term as a catch-all, however, would render this bunch senseless. There is a reason that prepositions got their name: they are positioned before NP’s.

    So "because" can take several complements: null, PP, clause. I must live in a cave because aside from this discussion I have never used or heard "because" with a noun, adjective, or adverb complement. They all get asterisks for me. But we know how to explain the innovation—if not just a fad. Being both a son and a dad, however, I have been on both ends of Victor’s complementless just because.

  36. blahedo said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

    I just spotted in the wild an instance of what I think is new-because, although it's not exactly "because NP":

    The idea was not to replace the workers with Japanese robots (GM Robotics was acquired from Fujitsu) because it would save money; it was to replace the workers with robots because fuck the workers.

    Italics original. I'm not entirely sure how to analyse this, actually; I guess "fuck the workers" in this case is a complete clause, but this seems very different from the sort of "because S" it would be if it were something like "because they hate the workers" and much more like the true "because NP" of something like "because greed" or "because class war". How would the parse/analysis capture that difference?

    (quote is from http://www.ginandtacos.com/2014/01/13/roger-against-the-machine )

  37. mjc said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 12:08 am

    I think my first experience of this type of construction came from the sort of non sequitur comedy that (I want to say) became popular in the early aughts. (How many layers of recency illusion can one nest?) Say, in Sealab 2021 or Family Guy, someone saying something along the lines of "And that's what I'm going to do, because SHUT YOUR BIG FAT MOUTH IS WHY."

    I guess I baselessly assume that this specifically came first, followed by ironic senses a la "because REASONS". But this is all breathtakingly backed up by jack all. You should believe me because should.

  38. Bessel Dekker said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    I looks as if in "it was to replace the workers with robots because fuck the workers", "fuck the workers" is mention rather than use. The expression is referred to in a way that makes it function as a noun. (It could also feature as subject, say: "Fuck the workers is not my point of view."

  39. David Morris said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 4:51 am

    lolmythesis.com has been mentioned on LL recently. Today I spotted one entry which read:
    'I’m making plasma guns because do I need a reason?'

  40. Catanea said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    An example in the wild I've just run across:
    "He was terribly nice to me at your ball, I hadn't a bit expected that he would come to London for it because for one thing, knee-breeches."
    Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate, 1949
    I don't think that "for one thing" negates the structure "because knee-breeches". But someone will explain it to me if it does.

  41. Bessel Dekker said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

    Catanea: I don't think it does. Nice early example!

    To come back to Dutch "want" (Ann, Jan. 10): the parallel would have been more compelling if there had been instances of subordinating "omdat" rather than coordinating "want".

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