Thursday, January 11, 2007


Reason to Because

I haven't had a rant about words and language for a while, so maybe it's time. Today's peeve is a phrase I've been hearing increasingly often in the last couple of years: “the reason is because”.

Consider this:

The polar ice caps may melt because the climate is warming.
If we split it into two sentences, we can say it two ways:
The polar ice caps may melt. That is because the climate is warming.

The polar ice caps may melt. The reason is that the climate is warming.

So far, we're fine. But here's what I've been hearing a lot of:
The polar ice caps may melt. The reason is because the climate is warming.

And that just feels wrong. I think it comes from an intermediate step:

The polar ice caps may melt because the climate is warming.

The reason the polar ice caps may melt is because the climate is warming.

That's wrong too, but we can see where it comes from, by simply adding “the reason ... is” to the sentence. Now when we turn that into two sentences, we get that silly phrase, “the reason is because”.

A related (but broader) construction that I also hear too often is “is is” (hey, how often can you use “is” three times in a row like that, hm?):

The reason the polar ice caps may melt is, is that the climate is warming.
This one is always spoken, never written. I've put the comma in there because I think that's how the speaker's mind works when he says it — there's a mental pause, which results in the replicated “is”. It's often spoken, though, with the “is is” together with no pause.

Anyway, “the reason is because” is a case of an incorrect modifier. It's much like “the price of the item is expensive” — no, the item is “expensive”; its price is “high”. There's a similar error here: [A] is because of [B], so the reason for [A] is [B] (not “because of” [B]). As sentences get complicated it's easy to lose track of what goes with what, which modifies which. Then we develop bad habits that we take back to the simple sentences.

It, uh, stands to reason.


Ray said...

"is is": Hear hear!

Maggie said...

I think the reason is because ;-) people get all bunged up in their sentence structure. My favorite language is public-official-speak. You know, when you get a policeman or a fireman (or woman, not being sexist, although I don't watch much local news and haven't actually seen a woman in this position, but I'm sure it happens) who is suddenly under the lights of the local news station, and they've begun to speak in a way that they think sounds intelligent. Only they can't follow through. It's painful to watch, but funny.

It got a second "that" crossed off an essay by my fourth-grade teacher. I had written "that that," and I swear it was grammatically correct. Maybe the sentence could have been worded differently to sound better, but when she crossed out the "that," she changed the meaning. One of those little infractions that your parents shrug off, but apparently stay with you for years. :-P

Barry Leiba said...

"That that is is."

Yep, sometimes, students have to hold out when teachers tell them they're wrong. Once in a while, the student's right.

The nephew of a friend of mine had one of those, years ago. He was in, I don't know, first or second or third grade, something like that. And they had a quiz on "opposites", where they were given words and had to write each word's opposite.

One of the quiz words was "out". David put "safe". David was a sports nut, you see, and was thinking of baseball. The teacher, though, was not thinking of baseball and marked it wrong — of course, the answer she was looking for was "in". But David took the quiz back to her and insisted that he was right too, and explained himself. The teacher changed it to a correct answer.

By the way, another good one like "that that" is "had had", which is actually fairly common (for a past progressive tense, or some such (I'm not sure of the correct name)). There's a convoluted and contrived sentence that goes something like this:
Mary, where John had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had been correct.

Ray said...

I learned the "had" example a slightly different way, such that it contains one more occurrence of the word:

Mary, where John had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had had the teacher's approval.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Past perfect (perfect is "have + past participle (-N/ED form)", and progressive is "be + -ING form". (The -ING form here is often called the present participle.)

Anyway, how about this one? "That that is, is. That that is not, is not. That that is is not that that is not; that that is not is not that that is. Is that not so? It is!"

Barry Leiba said...

Right, past perfect — thanks.

And yes, from "Charly". That's what my abbreviated version came from, but I didn't feel like typing the whole thing.