"Because" with non-verbal complement

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The American Dialect Society's recognition of because as Word of the Year has sparked a number of intriguing linguistic arguments. In its innovative use, because can take various different parts of speech as its complement: nouns, adjectives, interjections, and even adverbs. (See Tyler Schnoebelen's Idibon post for some corpus analysis.) While Geoff Pullum urges us to treat because as a preposition, regardless of its complement, Gretchen McCulloch has argued that we should be thinking of innovative because as a member of a "class of subordinating conjunctions that can relatively-newly take interjectionary complements." (The complements are "interjectionary" as long as they can serve as interjections, regardless of part of speech, like the adjective awesome or the adverb seriously.)

One of the most peculiar reactions to the ADS WOTY selection comes from "Stumblerette," a self-identified linguist who objects to the choice of because "because it is neither a word nor particularly zeitgeisty." Wait, because is not a word? In a previous post, Stumblerette explains that the selection "is stretching the meaning of the word 'word'" presumably because the innovative "because X" construction requires at least two words to work.

Or does it? On Facebook, Stephan Hurtubise shared a clip from last night's episode of "Parks and Recreation" demonstrating that because even works with non-verbal complements.

In this episode ("Farmers Market"), Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) tries to erect a "firewall" between work life and domestic life in order to avoid conflicts with his wife Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), as they both work at City Hall. Here's the dialogue for the scene, in case you can't view the video clip:

Leslie: What the hell are you doing out here?
Ben: Sorry, babe, I am off City Hall property. You have to stop. Firewall.
Leslie: Wrong. All roads and bridges fall under the purview of the Pawnee Department of Transportation, which is located on the fourth floor of City Hall. Firewall down. Stay frosty, Wyatt. We're just getting started.
Ben: OK, well, that's interesting. You know why?
Leslie: Why?
Ben: Because… (runs away)

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15 Comments »

  1. Paolo said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

    I am not a native speaker, apologies if this is OT, but I was wondering how the new usage, and particularly the "Because…" answer, compares to [Irish?] "'cause that's the why" which I find quite similar to Italian "Perché di sì" and "Perché di no".

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

    It really feels like there's a more general phenomenon at work, as in utterances like The way I look at it is FUCK YOU or She looked at me like "oh no" or He's all [rolls eyes, sighs] or I just, POW!! where some kind of performance of a linguistic or non-linguistic action can be embedded in speech. Whether this overlaps or subsumes the "because X" phenomenon is *hmmm*.

  3. Rod Johnson said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

    Or, as "Stumblerette" herself says, "I felt rather meh."

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

    I'm not sure if this aspect of the post is intended to be jocular or not, but I would certainly not classify the tv clip as an instance of the new "because X" construction. It would have, imho, worked equally well several decades ago before the new construction had arisen.

  5. KevinM said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

    Why? Just because.

  6. Noah said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    Also, this exchange from the children's tv show Arthur:

    Arthur: [DW is running to get into Arthur's tent but Arthur stops her] No, you can't come in.
    D.W.: Why?
    Arthur: Because
    D.W.: Because why?
    Arthur: Because because.
    D.W.: Because because why?
    Arthur: Because because because.
    D.W.: Because because because WHY?
    Arthur: Because… because… uh… because
    [Brain whispers in his ear]
    Arthur: Because you'd get scared of the dark!

    No clip, sadly. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0169414/quotes?item=qt0349676

  7. MattF said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

    @J W Brewer

    But the semantics would have been different.

  8. Robert said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

    This reminds me of my son who in kindergarten was approached by three of his female classmates and asked who he was going to marry. His reply, "I choose… run away!", which he then proceeded to do.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

    MattF: How so? Because now the range of things he could potentially have been considering saying before he decided to abandon the sentence altogether was in theory wider than it would have been in previous decades? I don't think (either on the page or from the audio, with whatever clues intonation adds) that it's particularly plausible that the aborted sentence was intended to put an X after "because" that would have been within the subset of X's that's only ok with the innovative use, as opposed to the sort of X that would have been unremarkable in post-"because" position in prior decades.

  10. MattF said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    J.W.Brewer:
    I was thinking of the 'runaway' as kind of expression, rather than as abandoning saying anything. So, as an expression, it would have whatever meaning the phrase "because [expression]" has at a given time. Oh the other hand if it's just "I give up," rather than a statement, then you're right.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

    Consider the following contrast: You could always say

    1. Because . . . because . . . Oh, never mind.

    Now you can also say

    2. Because Never Mind.

    2 has different intonation, a different syntactic structure, and probably different semantics than 1. I think what's going on in the clip is parallel to 1 rather than 2, although I take it not everyone necessarily agrees.

  12. Daniel Barkalow said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 7:23 pm

    @J W Brewer

    I think the intent of the scene is not that he got part of the way through saying something and then ran away without finishing, but that running away was part of the sentence. He's stating that she can't continue the argument, and the reason he gives is that he's running away, which he represents by running away. It used to be that the scene would go:

    Leslie: Why?
    Ben: Because I'm running away.
    Leslie: What!
    Ben runs away.
    The innovation is that, since there's a wider acceptance of putting arbitrary acts in language, he can elide the dialogue and the stage direction. Of course, part of the joke is that he's exceeded what's acceptable even now by using an act that isn't purely communicative. It would have possibly been more clear if he'd said: "Because (steps into a private driveway), that's why."

  13. Ken said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 8:46 pm

    Noah @4:22: Thanks, now I have an earworm. "If ever if ever a wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz is one because, because because because because because, because of the wonderful things he does!

  14. Michael Watts said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 6:03 am

    @Ken: the lyrics go "if ever oh ever a wiz there was…". I know this because I spent many, many years believing they went "if ever a wever a wiz there was…", with the "wever" bit being nonsense inserted for poetic purposes (scansion and alliteration with "wiz"). I now maintain a low-grade interest in why I still find that so plausible.

    I'm also confused as to why following because with an interjection is supposed to be new. I don't find "because + NOUN" grammatical, but I don't see an issue with "because fuck you that's why" or, as written some time ago by Matt Yglesias, "because hey why not".

  15. Rod Johnson said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

    In the comments to the epic software rant Mark noted, I found this: We were both, “that’s a thing?”

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