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Because grammar (and cats)

2314626_10237619-bagtote16_bAre we resistors to language adaptations?
Are we out of the language loop?
Are we getting old?

I wouldn’t have thought so (and nevermind, I’ll actually just speak for myself). I think I’m very open-minded about this sort of thing; I am normally at least aware, yet more often a user, of new vocabulary (I take my fair share of selfies), shifts in genre-accepted grammar (go ahead, start written sentences with but) and styles of expressing oneself (e.g. personal pronouns in academic writing are OK). These transitions don’t take long for me to adopt, provided I see adequate evidence of their use (I use the term ‘adequate’ loosely). In fact, this adaptation often spills over into my teaching, depending on the context students are allowed to experiment with unconventional language use. BUT, there’s one such piece of language creativity–one grammatical ugly duckling, one tawdry harlot of misuse–that took me completely by surprise recently, and though I’ve now seen it pop up in the most random places (note the tote above), my early adoption tendencies have failed to kick in; my cringes have failed to subside when it sneers at me from the page. Why? Because beliefs.

Did you raise an eyebrow just now also? Trust me, a small shudder went through me writing it.

It seems as though, unbeknownst to me, this because + noun construction (not to mention because + adjective) has mounted enough use to make the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2013. What? How did I not notice this? I’m well read. I spend an abnormal amount of time on social media. I have a teenage niece and nephews.

Image by Christopher Locke

My apparent ignorance aside, I have begun to reconsider whether or not I fall into the same unquestioning traditionalism as of a previous generation who cling to placing those pesky prepositions anywhere but at the end of a sentence. Thinking of my linguistic flexibility fossilising also makes me shudder.

Thankfully, my language teaching powers have also begun to equalise this knee-jerk spasm of hate, causing me to consider how to handle my existential concerns and attempt to rationalise my distaste.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 4.39.09 PMNot long before a conversation (with this colleague) about this because business triggered everything, I was leafing through my collection of old textbooks that sit, collecting dust on my office shelf, to see what of value I could learn from them.  One that caught my eye was Grammar is Important: A Basic Course for Canadian Schools (McGuire 1949: Book Society) because old and because grammar.

Most of it contains the usual: parts of speech, sentence structure, simple explanations and of course, identification exercises. Then I turned to an intriguing section: “Special Uses of the Future Tense”, which beyond surprising content, had a nod to guided discovery.


The opening paragraph explains how to use shall and will with particular pronouns for simple future use, but the sentence examples themselves do the opposite. Sure, it doesn’t guide much with the unclear instruction, “study these sentences”, but hey, it was 1949. What surprised me most, however, was not its approach to language learning, but in fact the language use itself. The use of shall has long been reduced to a few key movie phrases during my Canadian lifetime (“Shall we dance?“, for example), and thus by the time I was in elementary school, the distinction between the two by my grammar teachers included something like, “Sometimes shall indicates more of a promise than will.” But that’s it. No mention of coordinating either with different pronouns for meaning, let alone reversing this coordination for a different meaning. Obviously language use had changed enough to deem teaching this construction unnecessary, perhaps even harmful.

How is this relevant to my issues with because + noun/adjective? Well, if these outdated grammatical constructions that I’m not aware of–and more that I am aware of–exist and have consciously been determined more or less obsolete, am I resisting irrationally? Maybe there’s no reason logically to object.

It reminds me of a typical conversation I used to have when I was younger with my mom:

Mom: Go play outside.
Me: I don’t want to.
Mom: Why not?
Me: Because.
Mom: Because what?

The fact that the last retort ends in “what” suggests that what follows very well could have been a simple noun (though it never did that I remember). Traditional grammar rules–and now I may mean this term loosely–always indicated that what follows because is not a noun alone, but a full clause (e.g. I don’t want to because TV is more fun.) or of + noun (e.g. I don’t want to because of my a TV show.). Why didn’t we ever think to simply say “because TV”? Drilled into us were the ‘proper’ constructions.

When I first saw the because science, Internet, sleep responses, I thought the of had simply dropped out of laziness or social media-dictated concision, but in fact, the dominant explanation is to shift our grammatical perspective on because from conjunction to preposition, which corroborates a short discussion about this I had with Mike Griffin and breathyvowel here. The gist is that because is the new of, or rather the ‘why’ preposition. Regardless of the current dialogue about it, it begs the question of how it began. I’d venture to say it had to be from some popularised celebrity phrase (remember “Ssssssmokin’!“?) Or maybe it’s because Twitter.

So where does this lead in teaching, I wonder. Do we do a disservice to students who, perhaps accidentally, use this construction if we correct it? Do we start introducing it as a legitimate third grammatical construction? Do we wait for it to appear in class and do the usual warning: ‘well, you’ll see this sometimes in certain contexts, but be careful when you use it…’? Once again, it may come down to frequency of use, which although anecdotally can be noted as often enough to become a ‘word of the year’, someday it may increasingly show up in corpora.

My guess, however, is that where adaptations (adoptions?) like this are more easily forgiven in oral production, it won’t gain legs anytime soon in formal genres of writing. Of course, I can guarantee that every time I see it in a piece of student writing, I will think twice about correcting it because blogging.


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[…] Dialect Society’s Word of the Year 2013, as I discovered in Tyson Seburn’s humorous post, Because grammar (and cats). Should we teach it to our students? I believe that in relatively new language cases like this, […]

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