Subordinate clauses as noun phrases

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In a comment on "Inerrancy and prescriptivism", Philip Minden wrote that "'just because… doesn't mean' is chalk drawn slowly down the blackboard", referring to the panel on the right.

The traditional reference is to fingernails on a chalkboard, not chalk on a blackboard — if chalk on a blackboard produced that irritating visceral response, mid-20th-century school days would have been a (greater) source of trauma.

But tangled idioms aside, there's an interesting socio-syntactic point here, namely whether and why it's OK for certain subordinate clauses to serve as subjects, as if they were noun phrases — and whether (and when) that works for clauses introduced by just because.

We can start with "sentential subjects", as in discussed widely in the literature, going back a century or so:

That he is ill is indubitable.  [example from Jespersen, Analytic Syntax, 1937]

It's easy to find thousands of examples in elite writing over the centuries — a small sample:

That they inhabit, without exception, a silence as daunting as their near invisibility only intensifies our challenge. [Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day, 2006]

That we fought together was a good thing. [Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, 1953]

That we should have risked a second boat load seems more daring than it really was. [Robert Lewis Stevenson, Treasure Island, 1883]

That I penetrated his secret when Dame Durden was blind to it is no wonder … [Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1853]

That they do not very often want the means, may be gathered from the fact, that in July, 1841, no fewer than nine hundred and seventy-eight of these girls were depositors in the Lowell Savings Bank. [Charles Dickens, American Notes, 1842]

That we can have no conception of any thing, unless there is some impression, sensation or idea, in our minds, which resembles it, is indeed an opinion which hath been very generally received among philosophers … [ Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind, 1764]

There are other common cases of subordinated sentences that function as subjects. […update — see also this section from Jespersen 1928…] This is frequent with clauses introduced by whether:

Whether what you have told me is true or not true doesn't concern me. [Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890]

Whether this whale belonged to the pod in advance, seemed questionable … [Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851]

Whether he was privy to any of the transactions which ended in the revolution, is not known. [Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets, 1781]

Whether the corporal's amour terminated precisely in the way my uncle Toby described it, is not material… [Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, 1767]

Whether Partridge repented or not, according to Mr Allworthy's advice, is not so apparent. [Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, 1749]

Whether these laws were then written, or not written, but dictated to the People by Moses (after his forty dayes being with God in the Mount) by word of mouth, is not expressed in the Text … [Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651]

We should note these examples suggest that when the subject clause is introduced by whether, there's a pragmatic requirement for some kind of negativity in the verb phrase. And we should also note that the choice of subordinating conjunction has big effect on the clause's nouniness potential. The Cambridge Grammar doesn't discuss this with respect to the subject position, as far as I can tell, but does offer this:

Substituting if for whether in the subject clauses produces similar awkwardness or full ungrammaticality in the examples listed above, at least in my judgment, though your chalk-scraping may vary — e.g.

?If  what you have told me is true or not true doesn't concern me.

We could go on with other subordinating conjunctions, but let's skip ahead to just because .

Even when the clause introduced by "just because …" is not functioning as a subject, it seems to want a negation or question either in the subordinate clause or in the associated proposition, regardless of the order:

I suppose Tallboy thinks I'm not worth speaking to, just because he's been to public school and I haven't. [Dorothy Sayers, Murder Must Advertise, 1933]

Haven't I got any right to it, just because I can think for myself? [Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes, 1911]

Just because anybody's a mere typist it doesn't mean one's a heathen slave. [Dorothy Sayers, Murder Must Advertise, 1933]

Just because we've been away and didn't know about the barbecue and the ball, that's no reason why we shouldn't get plenty of dances tomorrow night. [Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 1936]

And when the "Just because …" clause unctions as a sentential subject, it seems that the verb definitely needs to be negated:

Just because you're conceited at being the 'great blockader' doesn't give you the right to insult women. [Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 1936]

Just because I am returning to the Queen's realm does not mean I intend to subject my palate to bangers and mash for the rest of my days. [Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, 2003]

Just because Webb hadn't denounced him tonight didn't mean Kit was off the hook. [Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day,  2006]

Just because this is a hospital doesn't mean I'm an invalid. [Kathryn Stockett, The Help, 2009]

Just because you keep saying it doesn’t make it so. [Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, 2016]

That's a sample of what I can from searching a random couple of hundred texts — searching the 19-billion-word News On the Web corpus yields 26,527 hits like these:

Just because I’m physically not in the office doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on.

Just because we didn’t mark a poll as internal doesn’t mean it’s truly independent and unbiased.

Just because your friend lives in a big house and drives a fancy car doesn't mean he's well-off.

Just because media is filled with scam news doesn't mean all of a sudden we have become more corrupt.

Just because i'm out in public doesn't mean I want to be talked to.

There's obviously more to be said about the rhetorical and syntactic structures involved.

But it seems pretty clear that sentences of the like "Just because it makes you sad doesn't mean it's wrong" are grammatical for many speakers and writers of English, Philip Minden's chalk to the contrary.

Update — Kai von Fintel in the comments points us to a relevant passage from Jespersen's Modern English Grammar, Part III, Syntax, Second Volume, 1928. I've pulled out a readable .pdf of the relevant segment here. The section on Just because starts at the bottom of p. 41.

Update #2 — Q Higuchi in the comments points to p. 731 of the Cambridge Grammar, discussing because clauses as subject or predicative complements:


  1. Roscoe said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 4:16 pm

    To which the peevers will no doubt reply, “Just because that phrasing is widely used doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 4:53 pm

    @Roscoe: "To which the peevers will no doubt reply, 'Just because that phrasing is widely used doesn’t mean I have to like it.'"

    If LLOG had a Bill of Rights, the First Amendment would guarantee Freedom of Peeve.

    But …

  3. Kai von Fintel said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 4:57 pm

    The "(just) because" as subject construction is already documented by Jespersen in his Modern English Grammar (1949), here.

  4. Eric Nelson said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 4:59 pm

    In fairness to the commenter who is annoyed by sentences like "Just because it makes you sad doesn't mean it's wrong": Finding something annoying is not the same as denying that it's grammatical. And, by the way, if you really want to annoy someone by making a noise on a chalkboard, I think using chalk is actually more effective than using fingernails. I remember doing both!

  5. KeithB said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 5:00 pm

    Is it like when an old scientist sees something new?
    "That is simply wrong."
    "Just because a few people think its true does not make it so"
    "Just because many people think its true does not make it so"
    "I always said this was true"

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 5:41 pm

    incidentally "just because… it doesn't mean…" is also fine, i.e., properly subordinated clause + "dummy it"

  7. Ted McClure said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 5:48 pm

    "Unctions" sounds like a wonderful verb. Not sure what it means, but it sounds interesting.

  8. Orin Hargraves said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 5:55 pm

    It seems to be that the presence of "Just" is the sole reason that negation must follow. The phenom seems pretty easily explainable under the head of construction grammar; the syntax in all the examples you find (and that come to mind) is invariable and predictable.

    Because the world is round
    It turns me on

    Because the wind is high
    It blows my mind

    Because the sky is blue
    It makes me cry

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 8:29 pm

    "Just because the cat has her kittens in the oven doesn't make them muffins." I remember a college contemporary who'd grown up in Vermont telling me this rural-Yankee aphorism back in the Eighties,* and versions of it with slight variations in wording (including "biscuits" typically substituted for "muffins") can be found in the google books corpus attributed to both Vermont and Maine (plus a 1972 use by the Supreme Court of Florida). I think the construction is well-suited for a gnomic, proverbial sort of register, even though that's not what most of the examples in the original post here are attempting.

    *In context it reportedly meant something like "the Vermont-born kids of rich-and/or-weird-hippie incomers aren't real Vermonters anymore than their recent-arrival parents are."

  10. Chris Button said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 9:17 pm

    Isn't "sentential subjects" a bit of a misnomer since the addition of the word "that" stops them from being fully formed sentences?

    Or is the point supposed to be that the word "that" is the grammatical marker of a sentential subject?

  11. Joe Fineman said,

    May 8, 2024 @ 9:47 pm

    I am one of the reactionaries who are made uncomfortable by "Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn't prove it's wrong". I would not say that myself; I would use an explicit noun phrase: "The mere fact that it makes you uncomfortable…". I account for my discomfort by the following suspicion: I start out wanting to say something like "You don't have to say it's wrong just because it makes you uncomfortable", where the "because" clause modifies "have to say" before the "don't" gets attached. Then, for emphasis, I want to move the "because" clause forward, but that is awkward in that it casts the negation adrift.

  12. Q Higuchi said,

    May 9, 2024 @ 2:42 am

    FYI – the Cambridge Grammar (CGEL) does discuss this on page 731.

  13. Phillip Minden said,

    May 9, 2024 @ 3:56 am

    Fascinating document, explains a lot.

  14. Peter Taylor said,

    May 9, 2024 @ 4:46 am

    We should note these examples suggest that when the subject clause is introduced by whether, there's a pragmatic requirement for some kind of negativity in the verb phrase.

    I don't think it's a requirement. The following seems perfectly reasonable to me:

    Whether colourless green ideas sleep furiously is an interesting question.

    The tendency to use negative verbs could simply be because "whether" introduces a Boolean question, and the choice to phrase as a question is more natural if the answer is either in doubt (negative) or unimportant (negative) than if it is clear and significant.

  15. Thomas Shaw said,

    May 9, 2024 @ 8:11 am

    All this evidence is much appreciated. Charitably, though, I might think that the objection to "just because X doesn't mean Y" is an objection to the stylistic/rhetorical features of that phrase rather than the grammatical ones. I'm not above using this construction in casual conversation or whatever, but I might bristle at it in a scientific paper or something, where it seems to rely on an implicit understanding that a careless reader might have concluded Y from X, for example if they failed to consider Z, in which case it's probably better to re-organize so that the reader is already thinking about Z by this point.

  16. Hector said,

    May 9, 2024 @ 11:20 am

    Pushing a stick of chalk with the marking end leading instead of dragging can make quite a squeal.

    "Just because P doesn't mean that Q" sounds like a "Frankenstein" idiomatic construction to me. "The mere fact that P doesn't mean that Q" is mashed up with "One should not assume that Q just because P."

    You can say, "The mere fact that P doesn't mean that Q, although Tom thinks it does." But not, "Just because P doesn't mean that Q, although Tom thinks it does." That seems like evidence that something weird is going on.

    I want to say, I know what you mean, and it is definitely a standard way of meaning that, but you're not literally saying it. Not quite, but almost as bad as a sentence like, "Far more people have climbed Colorado's fourteeners than I have."

  17. Julian said,

    May 9, 2024 @ 11:56 pm

    I had a teacher who could push a piece of chalk in such a way that, with a sort of slip stick motion (like a violin bow) it would make a line of dots in a single sweep across the board.

  18. Amanda Adams - said,

    May 13, 2024 @ 12:22 pm

    @Julian – with a pen or a brush on paper that is called "chattering", or so my teachers & students have told me. I'd apply it to chalk on slate as well.

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