"Due to" and the Conservation of Peeving

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From Megan Stone, via Heidi Harley:

A friend of mine, who was an English major with me in undergrad, runs the Twitter account for MBTA, the Boston public transportation system.  This morning, she posted the following:  “#MBTA #OrangeLine Svc is suspended at DTX due to a Medical Emergency. For Green Line Svc, please board at Park St. http://bit.ly/1c6GJEk”.  And a follower replied: “@MBTA BECAUSE OF a medical emergency NOT due to one! The use of due to REQUIRES a fiduciary (that means $$) responsibility. #GrammarMatters”.  Now, I know my ridiculous prescriptivist rules pretty well, between being one (a prescriptivist, not a rule) for most of my life and following LLog, but I’d never heard this one.  So, I did what any responsible language scientist would do; I googled diligently to see what might be underlying this guy’s claim.  What I found were several people railing about the differences between “due to” and “because of” in a different sense:  apparently “due to” is supposed to head an adjectival phrase, while “because of” heads an adverbial one.  As such, @MBTA’s use of “due to” was technically incorrect, but for a totally different reason.  (See, for example, this page.)  What I did NOT find was anyone who even mentioned this “fiduciary” business.

The whole Twitter thread is here — and the specific objection:

Well, it happens that there's a precedent for the "fiduciary" (apparently a malapropism for "financial") weirdness, but Ms. Stone has good reason to be puzzled — Mr. Wojnar is beating a horse that was already dying in 1755. From the entry for due to in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:

… the controversy began in the 18th century with owing. There were some, apparently, who objected to the use of owing, an "active participle," in the sense "owed, due," which was held to be proper only for the "passive participle" owed (or due). Johnson's Dictionary notes this controversy (under owe) and comments that Lord Bolingbroke had been aware of it, and avoided owing by using due in the sense "attributable": "Bolinbroke [sic] says, the effect is due to the cause." Johnson did not agree; he thought most writers used due only of debt. Johnson did not enter Bolingbroke's use of due in his first (1755) edition. He inserted it in a later edition, however, with a quotation from Robert Boyle and the annotation, "proper, but not usual."

Somehow Johnson's comments on due at his entry for owe (or perhaps just his attitude) were transmitted to American handbooks of the second half of the 19th century: Bache 1869, Ayres 1881, Compton 1898,. The gist of their argument is objection to the use of due where there is no notion of debt. […]

In the 20th century the grounds of objection change […] [W]ith Utter 1916, MacCracken & Sandison 1917, Fowler 1926, Krapp 1927, the sense "attributable" is acceptable as long as due is clearly an adjective; when due to is used as a preposition introducing a phrase that modifies anything but a particular noun, it is objectionable. A new issue has been born, and subsequent commentators have generally followed the newer line of attack.

Owing to and due to developed along precisely parallel lines, according to a detailed study by John S. Kenyon published in American Speech, October 1930. The difference is that owing to crept imperceptibly into use as a preposition while the focus of criticism was on the active-passive issue. Due to did not begin life as a preposition until nearly the 20th century (the OED Supplement has an 1897 citation). Once the critics noticed the new use, they laid aside old objections and belabored due to for its new function.

"Conservation of Peeving" in action, right?

It's natural to ask what the current state of elite due to usage is. The past week of NYT articles include these among others:

But in recent years, due to political pressures and cultural changes, more rabbis have tilted toward easing the restrictions.
States usually count about two-thirds of provisional ballots, with the rest rejected due to the voters' ineligibility.

And in the past few days, The Atlantic magazine gives us these, among others:

Medical care in Syria has been disintegrated due to the ongoing conflict that erupted in March 2011.
Udall was also criticized by immigration advocates for not doing enough to mobilize the Hispanic community, which has soured on Democrats due to Washington's failure to act on immigration.

So the "due always means debt" business has been a dead letter for 250 years, and the "due can only modify nouns" objection has been increasingly ignored for over a hundred years.  As a result, these are perfect peeves, allowing people like Mr. Wojnar to feel superior to almost every other user of the English language during the past century or three.



  1. Jason Crawford said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 9:30 pm

    For extra amusement, note that Mr. Wojnar gets the meaning of “fiduciary” wrong. He seems to think it refers to money; in fact, it refers to trust: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fiduciary

    Perhaps he was conflating the word with the term “financial”.

  2. David B said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

    This totally ignores the fact that Twitter's character limit requires all sorts of grammatical shortcuts—and "due to" is 4 characters shorter than "because of", which is important given that the original tweet clocks in at 137 characters (less than 4 shy of the 140-character limit).

  3. Brett said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 10:19 pm

    I have been aware since high school that there was some kind of peeve about "due to," but I never knew what the "rule" was supposed to be. In one of the short writing textbooks we used in school, The Lively Art of Writing (which I loathe far more than The Elements of Style), Lucille Payne says that "due to" should simply never be used, since it is almost never used correctly, and even when the usage is correct, she considered it "graceless."

  4. Y said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 12:49 am

    When did people start using "thanks to…" with all kinds of unpleasant things, like natural disasters and diseases? It seems accepted even in journalistic language, but it makes me cringe.

  5. CLThornett said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 1:03 am

    What would the peevers suggest for 'due date', I wonder, or is it only 'due to' that exercises them?

  6. Jeroen Mostert said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 1:19 am

    I love the use of "proper, but not usual". It's for when you don't want to condemn things outright, but wish to strongly imply that that's not how the proverbial right-minded people go about it. Faint condemnation can work better than outright interdiction.

  7. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 1:31 am

    "Due to" is adjectival, so "His death was due to complications". "Owing to" is adverbial, so "He died owing to complications". Or not.

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 2:03 am

    Historical note: My mother (born 1921), who subscribed to lots and lots of classic peeves, had a fully functioning "rule" along the lines that Frank Gladney describes. I still can't help twitching a bit at adverbial due to. So the issue may be antique enough that most people (like the original questioner) don't know what the fuss is about, but it was definitely alive and well within living memory.

  9. Plane said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 3:41 am

    In response to "Y":

    If you look up thank, n. in the OED, you'll find "Owing to, as a result of, in consequence of" as part of sense 6 under "thanks to". The earliest citation they give is from 1633, although perhaps more relevant is this 1813 quote from a poem by Sir Walter Scott:

    It is a sight but rarely spied,
    Thanks to man's wrath and woman's pride.

    An 1894 citation from the Westminster Gazette also seems appropriate:

    The passengers―thanks, I expect, to the bitter cold―behaved more quietly at night than in the morning.

    So it seems the answer is "since well before you were born".

  10. Robot Therapist said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 3:47 am

    I was taught the rule that Frank described above.

  11. Robot Therapist said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 3:51 am

    … and I'm not very happy with "medical care has been disintegrated"

  12. Peter Taylor said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 4:07 am

    Should John's dictionary say Johnson's dictionary? That seems to make most sense in the context.

    [(myl) Indeed — fixed now.]

  13. Jeffrey Shallit said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 5:14 am

    In mathematics and theoretical computer science, sentences like "This result is due to Smith [3]" are common. I once had an editor object to this usage on the grounds that "due to" was supposedly reserved for something else, but he had no suggestions for a replacement.

  14. He said, she said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 6:41 am

    Someday – soon I hope, because impatience – we’ll encounter another justification for dismissing “due to.”

  15. Mark Stephenson said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 8:18 am

    Kind of ironic that "owing to" is /not/ the expression that anyone says has to be used in connection with money.

  16. Brett said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 8:24 am

    @Robot Therapist: I agree about transitive "disintegrate." For me, it can only be used that way in the context of a fantasy role-playing game.

  17. Pat Barrett said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 8:25 am

    David Skinner, in The Story of Ain't, has five mentions of the 'due to' controversy in connection with Webster's 2nd and 3rd.

  18. ThomasH said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    I confess a strong dislike for "X is due to Y" (when the meaning is that Y causes X) instead of "X i because of Y." To my ear, it sounds like the writer is reaching for a more sophisticated or legalistic term instead of a common one. I dislike "prior to" as a synonym of "before" for the same reason. I would not be prescriptive about these except to warn writers that some people have that reaction and to think twice about using "due to" and "prior to."

  19. languagehat said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 10:43 am

    I would not be prescriptive about these except to warn writers that some people have that reaction and to think twice about using "due to" and "prior to."

    "Some people" being a popular and common way of referring to oneself without appearing excessively egocentric, this boils down to the ultimate essence of peevery: "Nobody should use a word/phrase/construction that I personally happen, for whatever reason or lack of reason, to dislike." Against which attitude the gods themselves struggle in vain.

  20. Guy said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 11:28 am

    I think we're all missing the important point here:

    "As such, @MBTA’s use of 'due to' was technically incorrect, but for a totally different reason."

    Apparently, if you google and find a crank complaining about something, that tells you the usage is "technically incorrect".

  21. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    See also the treatment of "due to" in Garner's Modern American Usage. Garner considers "due to" for "because of" to be erroneous, but puts it at Stage 4 of his Language-Change Index (ubiquitous but still rejected by diehard "snoots").

  22. Rodger C said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 11:41 am

    I avoid "due to" for an entirely different reason, viz. because I'm tired of seeing it written "do to."

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 11:42 am

    languagehat: It's true that "some people" dislike "prior to". Garner and Bernstein are examples (and I'm another). Thus unless you've had ThomasH on the couch, there's no reason to play the psychoanalyst and tell him what he really meant. The same applies to your leap from "think twice about" to "nobody should use". (Garner and Bernstein, on the other hand, have said that nobody should use "prior to".)

  24. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

    When I interviewed Garner for the Visual Thesaurus back in 2009, I asked about his aversion to "prior to."

    VT: Let's take prior to as an example. In Modern American Usage, you say that it is "one of the most easily detectable symptoms of bureaucratese, commercialese, and legalese," and that it's "terribly overworked." Would it be fair to say that prior to might be more appropriate in certain registers of English, related to certain lines of work like law or the corporate world?

    BG: I would never say that. I would say that lawyers or corporate people who say prior to are probably not very linguistically astute. They don't care a lot about language. I think it's a huge negative mark, just as I think subsequent to is. These are genteelisms, and they typify people who slightly puff up their language on the mistaken notion that it makes them more professional or gives them more status, when in fact what it does is just the opposite. I cannot imagine a context in which prior to is better than before, unless it were in the punch line of a joke at the speaker's expense. To be honest, I can't read a sentence with prior to in it, without having very adverse inferences about the writer. And the same is true with previously to, and antecedent to, and anterior to. These are all just puffed up ways of saying before.

  25. languagehat said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

    there's no reason to play the psychoanalyst and tell him what he really meant.

    I'm not playing the psychoanalyst, I'm mocking what I see as an all-too-common copout. Of course there are such "some people," but that's irrelevant except for rhetorical purposes. I've spent decades dealing with such attitudes, and I know how to interpret peevery.

    As for Garner, he may be good on legal language but when it comes to language in general his peevery is just as foolish and ungrounded as anyone else's; I hate to see him deferred to, and I really really hate the fact that the Chicago Manual took a giant step backward by letting him write their grammar section.

  26. Guy said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    What I find interesting about that Garner passage is it's assumptions. Apparently the idea that somebody might say "prior to" in a particular context because the speaker perceives a subtle difference in meaning or it simply came naturally to them is off the table, the only explanation is that they're doing a search-and-replace algorithm in their mental thesaurus to attempt to achieve status. I can imagine situations where "prior to" is not mechanically replaceable by "before", such as "The notion of X is theoretically prior to the concept of Y". And although it may be argued there are better ways to phrase that sentence, it seems to me it is at least adequate. Besides, if you're thinking so much more about how much you hate the author's writing style than what they are saying, I would say the moral fault for that is on you, the reader.

    What's especially amusing is that Garner's objection is that he perceives the author as doing what he thinks they should be doing, but in a way that makes it too transparent. For Garner, impressing the reader is vital. Making it clear that's what you're trying to do is an error, but just trying to communicate your point as effectively as possible without worrying about the people who are looking for some word choice to pounce on that they don't like is the worst sin of all.

  27. Y said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    These are not quite what I'm griping about. These examples are of a good outcome of a bad thing, and I interpret them as somewhat ironic. I'm thinking of "Large structures blown apart in Slidell, Louisiana, thanks to Hurricane Katrina," or "Inflation rose rapidly during the 1970s, thanks to the Vietnam War," where there's nothing to be thankful for and no irony is intended.

  28. Jonathon Owen said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 11:05 pm

    "Some people" being a popular and common way of referring to oneself without appearing excessively egocentric . . .

    Another favorite is to state that x is the "preferred" form, with the agent nicely hidden behind a passive. Preferred by whom? Most likely by the person who wrote the usage book.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 12:35 am

    languagehat: The reason I said you were playing the psychoanalyst is that they use (there must still be some psychoanalysts) their training and experience to conclude what their clients supposedly really mean, and you used your experience to determine what someone supposedly meant. This is similar to what Guy noted about Garner—he unfairly concludes something about people's character from their use of a phrase.

    What ThomasH said was true: Some people do object to "due to" and "prior to", and on that basis it's reasonable to warn them to think twice before using the phrases. I object to mocking him for saying something true and reasonable.

    If anyone thinks I'm taking this personally, they're right (this time). I'm quite capable of saying that many people object to something and therefore people's representatives shouldn't do it, even though I don't object to it myself. Reference available on request.

    However, after your polite reply to me, it's a pleasure to agree with you about Garner and especially the CMoS's choice of him to write that chapter.

    Guy: I think your criticism of Garner is a bit unfair. He says clearly in the book I linked to that his objection is only to prior to meaning before. In his interview he wasn't so clear, but the problem was that lack of clarity. I see no reason to think he'd object to your theoretically prior to.

    Only a bit unfair, though, because he certainly makes assumptions about people who say prior to where they could say before, not thinking that people may hear the phrase so often that it's natural to them, or as you say, that it might have a different shade of meaning for them—though I don't remember ever hearing anyone say that.

  30. maidhc said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 12:45 am

    I have also heard people say that you should use "owing to" instead of "due to" but I never really understood why. The only clear discussion I found said that it's because "owing to" in that usage came into the language slightly earlier. It seems to me if you're talking about a debt, they are equivalent.

  31. Guy said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

    @Jerry Friedman

    But what does "prior to" to mean "before" mean? Anywhere "before" could be substituted without a drastic change in meaning or acceptability? My impression may be different than that of others, but I feel a subtle distinction between "prior to" and "before" in temporal contexts. To me, I feel in many usages "prior to" tends to treat the thing that is second as the fixed reference point and the location of thing that is first as the newer information. whereas "before" is a bit more neutral – it tells us the relative order with less reference to the locations of the two things considered as positions within some absolute reference frame. I probably would find "prior to" a bit jarring if the first thing was more informationally old than the second thing. I also feel like "prior to" tends to have affinities with preparations and, to a lesser extent, repeated pairs of events or classes of repeated events viewed as abstractions even in cases where before is available. "Before" is also less restricted in terms of the types of sequence. In addition to spatial and temporal sequence, it's generally applicable to almost any sequence. "Prior to" is limited to temporal sequences and other sequences closely metaphorically tied to temporal sequences. In short, they have different nuances in meaning even in places where they exist in alternation. Of course, one apparent difference is that "prior to" is markedly formal whereas "before" is neutral, but I think it does those who want style advice a disservice to pretend that is the only difference.

    One thing that is a warning flag about "don't use X to mean Y" is that, for confirmation, it asks you to imagine situations where Y is the most natural choice and see if substituting X improves it. If not, it's good advice. But phrased that way, the rule is almost tautological. If two words differ in range of meanings and connotations, but have a large area of overlap, there is no reason why you should expect archetypical situations in which you use one variant to be equally suited to the other – you've already tailored the environment to one variant, but make no effort to extend the same treatment to the other!

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    Garner's take is an aesthetic one that appears (taking it at face value and not looking for inconsistencies of his own usage) to favor plainness over ornament. Think Bauhaus, think Puritan suspicion of stained-glass windows and the like. Some people, whether in architecture or in prose, like a self-consciously unadorned "form follows function" style; others enjoy ornament. The mistake is universalizing ones own aesthetic preferences or, worse, making them moral judgments, thinking e.g. that ornamentation = disguise = deception, or at least = vanity. Condemning something as a "genteelism" is a social-class judgment, which *might* in principle be based on good descriptive sociolinguistics, but . . . I wouldn't assume a sufficient empirical basis for it in Garner's case.

  33. Daniel Barkalow said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    I'd accept transitive "disintegrated" in the sense of "cause to be split into separate parts" (as opposed to "destroyed"). I hear about medical care getting integrated, so the reverse process would have it being disintegrated.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

    Guy: Thanks for discussing the differences between "before" and "prior to", which I'd asked about. Can you give an example where you'd find "before" jarring or it would have the wrong nuance?

    One syntactic difference is that "prior to" works better before a possessive pronoun (or whatever you call them) and a gerund (ditto), and is the only possibility before an object pronoun and a gerund.

    They were knocking McCain like crazy prior to him getting the nomination. (Shortened from Fox News via COCA)

    They were knocking McCain like crazy prior to his getting the nomination.

    ?They were knocking McCain like crazy before his getting the nomination.

    ?They were knocking McCain like crazy before him getting the nomination.

    Of course, I'd much rather they said "before he got the nomination", and I wouldn't be surprised if Garner felt the same way.

    There are actually two hits at COCA like that last one, or I might have given it an asterisk.

    "You told a reporter once that you — in the days before you getting famous, worked at all sorts of odd jobs and all of those were very much outdoors and in the sun."

    "Yeah, this whole scene that — that comes before him getting out of the car is us talking about the job and — and everybody's allegiances and distractions that everybody might have."

    There are 43 hits for similar constructions with "prior to".

  35. James Wimberley said,

    November 16, 2014 @ 11:10 am

    A dead letter for 250 years? Bolingbroke died in 1751, after a long and exciting career of political intrigue and belles-lettres that started in 1701. Voltaire valued his company in retirement/exile, so we can take him as a real intellectual and writer. So it's somewhere between 260 and 310 years.

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