Whimsical proscription

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I posted yesterday on my blog (though the posting was mysteriously dated 12/28 by WordPress) about what looks like a whimsical proscription from Ambrose Bierce, who in 1909 instructed his readers not to use

Because for For. “I knew it was night, because it was dark.” “He will not go, because he is ill.”

Jan Freeman pointed me to this "rule" in Write It Right. She and I have been unable to find it elsewhere (in the 19th or 20th centuries); it seems to have been an invention of Bierce's, a concocted usage rule — like the ones that Freeman discussed in an entertaining recent column entitled "Rule by whim".

Meanwhile, in a comment on Freeman's latest column (on usage advice that hasn't aged well) I came across another candidate for whimsical proscription, against complement clauses missing the complementizer that.

As I noted in a posting to the American Dialect Society mailing list earlier today, when you write about usage advice, readers almost always take it as an invitation to unload their pet peeves in public.  So it was in this case. Commenter "HughMann" had among his gripes:

I know he is a good man … No, I know that he is a good man ….

Now, many usage handbooks caution against "omission of (complementizer) that" where a temporary ambiguity could result (because the subject of the complement clause might be interpreted as the object of complement-taking verb), as in

I know Kim will come.

(In actual practice, that is very often omitted even in the face of such a temporary potential ambiguity; the intended reading is clear from context, real-world plausibility, discourse structure, etc.) Some handbooks also note that that isn't omissible with certain complement-taking verbs, like add:

Kim added that they would come.  but  ??Kim added they would come.

But the commenter's example is a case where no temporary ambiguity is possible and where the verb (know) is one that generally allows omission.  It looks like the commenter believes that that omission is never acceptable — a preposterous proscription I've never encountered. And a claim that is flagrantly at odds with actual practice. (In fact, Mark Davies noted on ADS-L that in the Time magazine corpus at BYU the frequency of complementizer that (versus zero) has been steadily and significantly declining since the 1960s. Similar declines have been observed in other corpora.)


  1. Karen said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    It's so often omitted that many teaching grammars for other languages caution their Anglophone readers that whatever the equivalent is in the language being learned "can never be omitted as it often is in English".

  2. Faldone said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    I seem to remember hearing proscriptions against using that in these circumstances. It might be just proscribing it when followed by anothet that, as in I knew that that was the rule I should be following.

  3. James said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    I was going to point out a certain construction in sports writing that is for me ungrammatical: "the fact …" with no 'that' complementizer. But, now that I've looked for examples, I see that it's widespread and not particularly connected to sports. For instance,

    "Centenarian Attributes Long Life to the Fact He Never Married" (A NYT headline today)

    "My brother also remembers my dad having spoken about the fact he did not do political events on Sunday" (Boston.com quoting Mitt Romney)

    I don't get a full-blown WTF? from these, but as I said they are not grammatical for me. Whereas in the other cases ("… knows that…", "… told me that…", "… the reason that she…") I find the two versions equivalent. Is this an idiosyncrasy?

  4. Boris Blagojević said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    For what it's worth, In one English class I was told to try to omit "that" as often as possible, and if I remember correctly, there was a Language Log post about that advice taken to the extreme.

    In the first reading I found the sentence "Centenarian Attributes Long Life to the Fact He Never Married" perfectly grammatical, but got a full-blown WTF from it.
    I can almost see some future prescriptivist ranting about this decadent fashion of the that-before-the-fact omission, and providing this sentence as an example of the terrible misunderstandings that the Reckless can cause.

  5. Jonathan said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    @Boris: Agreed, but of course in this case adding "that" does not avoid ambiguity, because [sorry, for] it can be read as a relative pronoun. Cf. "Centenarian Attributes Long Life to the Woman That He Never Married".

  6. Boris Blagojević said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    Yeah, sorry. Didn't occur to me that I chose the absurd reading just because [for?] I found no other, and that it's possible with "that" too. Which was quite obvious, since [better to avoid the issue] the whole point was that the omitted that can always be replaced with the explicit one…

  7. MJ said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

    I don't think this is off-topic…

    I, like James, have long believed that tensed complement clauses after nouns required 'that' to be grammatical. Furthermore (here's another prescription for you) I always believe that when directly quoting someone, 'that' must be omitted. So:

    Good: John said "I'm hungry."
    Bad: John said that "I'm hungry."

    Somehow both those prescriptions actually sound like part of my grammar, in that violating them sounds bad to me, but maybe I've just internalized them? Anyway, I find myself in frequent conflict when I want to directly quote someone after a noun denoting their speech-act (or indicating an attitude they hold). For example:

    John's opinion that "I'm hungry."

    It just doesn't sound like that sentence means what it's supposed to mean (read it aloud), and it doesn't sound like I can get away without the 'that'.

    That was intended mostly as an interesting fact about myself, but also as a suggestion of another possible prescription involving the necessity of 'that'.

  8. Tim said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

    MJ : To me, "that" before a quote implies that it is not a direct quote. Assuming that someone were speaking, thus making the quotation marks invisible, "John said that I'm hungry" would not mean that John was talking about his own hunger, but about my hunger.

    Of course, without the "that", it becomes ambiguous. "John said I'm hungry" might mean that John said the exact phrase "I'm hungry", or it might mean the same thing as "John said that I'm hungry".

  9. James said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    I, like James, have long believed that tensed complement clauses after nouns required 'that' to be grammatical.
    For the record, that's not what I believe (or said). I said that for me, it's especially "the fact that" that requires the 'that', and in other constructions I find the zero complementizer equivalent to the 'that' complementizer.

  10. Emily Lilly said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 11:23 am

    My personal ideolect requires a much higher use of "that" with complements than others' do. We're not talking about conscientious rule-following, either; it just sounds wrong to me to drop the "that" from many droppable contexts.

    I wonder if perhaps my parents were deliberately following prescriptivist rules (maybe their teachers ground it into them–they both graduated from NJ high schools in 1966, so it is possible that the teachers in the 50's and 60's in that region were all on the same page), and that I internalized them within my personal grammar.

    Are there any good studies done of the children of parents who follow a particular bit of prescriptivist poppycock (vs ones who do not follow it), to see how thoroughly they acquire the poppycock rules?

  11. MJ said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 5:30 pm


    Yes, quite right: you didn't say that. But that means we're alot different. For instance:

    Good for me: the idea that the Yankees will win
    Bad for me: the idea the Yankees will win

    Good for me: John's assertion that he will stay
    Bad for me: John's assertion he will stay

    Maybe I should say 'worse' rather than 'bad'. The point is just a lot of these nouns seem to be just like 'fact' (not all of them: 'reason' goes either way as you said). But zero works fine in these cases for you?

  12. James said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

    Uh. no. None of those works for me.

    I see that Arnold has added (in Battling proscriptions) that when nouns take clausal complements, the 'that' is required. My own judgments agree (as far as I've tested them).

  13. Morten Jonsson said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    I sympathize with Bierce's rule. He's trying to avoid our old friend ambiguity. His second example, "He will not go, because he is ill," could be taken to mean "He will go not because he is ill (but for some unstated reason)." Compare "I don't eat carrots because they're good for me; I eat them because they're delicious." The comma between "go" and "because" is meant to keep the sentence from being read that way, but it's an eye comma; it has no effect on how one actually hears the sentence. That construction often bothers me too. I wouldn't make a rule against it, but I do tend to avoid it (though not by substituting Bierce's "for," which sounds awfully old-fashioned these days).

  14. Clayton Burns said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    The Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1913 (online) has an interesting entry on "for," conj. Since Bierce's 1891 "Tales of Soldiers and Civilians" (at The Ambrose Bierce Project) provides a clear contrast between uses of "for" and "because" as conjunctions, it would be worthwhile to match this Webster's entry to Bierce's practices in short stories at much the same time.

    It would also be useful to search in the Longman Advanced American Dictionary and in the CD for the Longman Language Activator to profile how uses of "for" and "because" may have evolved. I would suggest a COBUILD search as well.

    If we were to examine practices in Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Milton, we might locate differences that persisted into Bierce's rule.

    Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1913, for, conj:
    2. Since; because; introducing a reason of something before advanced, a cause, motive, explanation, justification, or the like, of an action related or a statement made. It is logically nearly equivalent to since, or because, but connects less closely, and is sometimes used as a very general introduction to something suggested by what has gone before.

    Give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good; for his mercy endureth forever. –Ps. cxxxvi.

    Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues Did not go forth of us, 't were all alike As if we had them not. –Shak.

    The North American uptake of corpus tools has been strangely delayed. America should create an official federal system. I like the COBUILD Student's Dictionary and COBUILD Intermediate English Grammar for beginners, with the substitution of either the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, with the Language Activator CD, or the COBUILD Advanced Learner's English Dictionary for intermediate students, and the Longman Advanced American Dictionary, while continuing with the Activator, and the COBUILD English Grammar, for advanced students. John Sinclair would be able to perform an audit of English language practices in the US in faculties of education, and at departments of linguistics and English. We need official systems for English for immigrants. We need to eliminate TOEFL and SAT manuals, and all ETS and Pearson standardized tests with no curriculum.

    You will find far more instances of "for" as a conjunction than of "because" in "Tales of Soldiers and Civilians." The Webster's 1913 is easily available online. Yet nobody oriented to this language issue. Comparing Poe and Bierce might be indicated.

    Internationally, the English language is larger in revenues than Wal-Mart. But it is so heavily parasitized that we lose hundreds of billions of dollars a year in potential. "Language Log" would be a good site for study of Alan Finder's New York Times article "Unclear on American Campus." Who oriented to this article and developed programs?

    The way to study English is to have powerful methods at every level: sound, word, grammar, and discourse. Obama should recommend that spelling bees be rejected for poetry bees. The US should commission a 50-lyric-poem Internet database (1600-1900) for which professors in English, linguistics, and education would develop descriptions of the sound systems of English, exercises on terms and meaning, and extensive video discussions. The lyric database should be taught in phonetics and phonology courses.

    Despite all the busywork to "improve" education in the UK, USA, and Australia, students still cannot read texts. How could you "read" "The Sick Rose" without grasping the multi-layered system of chiasmus, the weighting of /z/ to the left and /s/ to the right, and other gradation, as in periodic /f/ and /v/? Are we sensitive to /f/ and /v/ gradation in Book IX of "Paradise Lost," or in "The Beast in the Jungle" ?

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