Why Not Just Because?Posted: June 6, 2012
It seems as though some writers are biased against the word “because.”
Maybe it’s because they were taught in grade school that you should never start a sentence with it. (Were you told also of this “crime”?) Of course, just as with the injunction against splitting an infinitive, ending a sentence with a preposition, or starting a sentence with “And,” although it may be a good means of helping students generally improve their writing and of creating some conformity among divergent styles—a boon to the poor teacher who has to read and grade twenty-five different versions of every assignment—a slavish adherence would be misguided. The rule simply doesn’t need to be strictly followed in general writing. True, you wouldn’t want to start every other sentence with “Because,” unless you were aiming for some effect, as in poetry—that would just be poor style. But there’s no harm in it.
Sometimes it seems as though a writer feels the word “because” is too common; that is, vulgar or plain. I see this sometimes in academic writing or where the writer aspires to a certain level of sophistication. I disagree. While it’s true that literature has given us many substitutes, in my opinion “because” is perfectly serviceable and in fact preferable to the alternatives in most cases.
“Since” is the choice I hate to see the most. The word has a strong temporal aspect to its meaning. To get a sense of what I mean, mentally insert the word “ever” before “since” in the following examples.
- Archibald left, since he really needed to get out of there.
- Yolanda went on to attend college, since grade school had prepared her well.
- Troy dwelt in the past since the future was uncertain.
- She drank a lethal quantity of poison since she felt as if things couldn’t get any worse.
In each case, “since” is meant in a causal sense, but you can see how this can get muddled.
Finally, consider a case where a natural reading creates an understanding of “since” that fits the sentence but not the writer’s intention.
- Since we moved to Alberta, I have come to love Canada.
“For” may have even greater drawbacks. Apart from sounding archaic as a stand-in for “because” (OED calls it “literary,” but I don’t think that condones its use in writing about literature) it carries a risk of misreading. Consider the following paragraphs:
- I chose Mountain Dew, for its high sugar content was delightful. I chose Snickers, for its peanuts.
- We went to the grocery store, for we were running out of Diet Coke. We went to the shoe store, for running shoes.
In each, the first use of “for,” apart from being almost comically inflated, causes the reader to expect that “for” is meant in the same sense when he or she encounters it again in a similar construction. Clearly, it’s not.
And so we come to “as.” This word has its place, from time to time, as a substitute for “because.” It carries a sense of a less directly causal relationship. Yet it does have another meaning as a synonym for “while,” so the writer should be careful to prevent misreading.
This alternate meaning (“while”) does imbue it with a special sense of things happening at the same time. For example, of the following two uses, I like the latter:
- She was as frightened of dogs as of anything, as she had been bitten by one as a girl.
- She stayed away from the fence, as she was wary of dogs.
The subject’s being wary of dogs is something happening at the same time as she stays away from the fence. The being bitten, however, took place long ago. And did you notice the other uses of “as” I threw in there to show how confusing it can be?
If for no other reason, I prefer “because” because it has only one meaning, and thus in my opinion, it’s the best suited for the job. It’s dedicated and hardworking. It gets right to the point.
What Do the References Say?
AP Style directs writers to make the following distinction: “because” should denote a specific cause-effect relationship; “since” is acceptable (my italics) in a causal sense when the first event in a sequence led logically to the second but was not its direct cause. The example given in the edition I own: “They went to the game, since they had been given the tickets.” I infer that “since” would be acceptable only when preceded by a comma, because to omit the comma would be to imply direct causality and restrict the meaning of the sentence rather than link two independent clauses (coordinating conjunction). And I still would prefer “because” in their example; again, mentally add “ever” before “since.”
Words into Type seems to have no problem with “since” to indicate cause. It does lay down the law about using a comma (which was my inclination, noted just above) when a clause introduced by “since” does not restrict the verb. My Concise OED includes a similar usage note about commas at “because,” but the reason is specified slightly differently.
The American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary don’t call “for” literary, archaic, rare, or anything else, nor do they place any caveats on the use of “since.”
Now to The Chicago Manual of Style, the number one source for usage guidelines in book publishing. It says (at “since” in section 5.220), “Some writers erroneously believe that the word relates exclusively to time. But…” and goes on to sanction its use as a synonym for “because” except when there could be a possibility of confusion with the temporal meaning of “since.” Therefore you should say “Because we moved to Alberta, I have come to love Canada,” unless you meant to say “Since moving to Alberta, I have come to love Canada.”
That brings me to a guideline I would suggest if I were writing a book on grammar: if you can’t follow “since” with a noun or noun phrase (e.g., the noun phrase “moving…”) rather than a clause, use “because.”
But it seems that my position is not very defensible among grammarians and word mavens, so I’ll just have to relax about it. I’ll still be watching out for potential for confusion with use of “since,” “as,” or “for,” ready like a gunslinger with a “be-cause” like the click and discharge of my trusty revolver.