Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The "Due To" Argument

How do you feel about the phrase due to? Does it just mean "attributable to" to you, or can it also mean "because of"? My recent blog post on joining independent clauses started a discussion about the proper use of due to, which appeared in an example sentence and was not part of the point I was making. It made me realize that I'm drawing in readers who think about language differently from me. That's a good thing.

A reader questioned my use of due to in the sentence, "The plane took off late due to poor weather conditions; thus we arrived late." I responded:

Due to is one of those phrases that cause trouble wherever they go. True, due to means "attributable to," but it also means "because of." This second definition has been around since 1897, according to Oxford Dictionaries Online and has been a bone of contention since then. Bryan A. Garner calls due to a skunked term in Garner's Modern American Usage,: a term whose meaning changes greatly and becomes the object of dispute. One side only allows for the traditional meaning, while the other side embrace the new meaning. That other side includes not only language liberals but also speakers who don't think much about language. In the end, says Garner, the first group tends to shrink over time while the second group grows. While the debate rages on, however, the skunked term causes numerous debates and probably should be avoided in some cases ("due to" and "Skunked Terms").
I tend to be more of a descriptivist, but when I edit I think about the context and audience. I'd reconsider allowing due to and other skunked terms in certain texts.

Since joining Copyediting a few months ago, I've been hanging around with a more prescriptivist crowd. Copyeditors are well-known for being rule enforcers. It's what we do. Many of Copyediting's readers are very strict about language rules and are very much in favor of the traditional ways of doing things. I'm a little more laid back, believing that language rules should describe how we use the language and that how we use language changes all the time.

Prescriptivism describes how language ought to be used. That's not a bad thing in and of itself. Writers and editors need to understand the rules of language to ensure copy communicates the writer's desired meaning. We all know that the subject of a sentence and its verb must agree in number: We are jumping, not we is jumping. English speakers have collectively agreed that the force that keeps our feet on the ground is called gravity, not bed, horse, or zdyoeare. Those rules must be enforced if the writer is to be considered literate and his message is to get through. My job as an editor is to enforce those rules and many, many more. The rules are a shared understanding. When we agree upon them, we can communicate — and that is the point of all language.

But language changes. Hence, we no longer write like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Emerson, or even Hemingway. (Well, we could but we'd sound dated.) As language and its rules change, we lose agreed-upon rules and meanings, which inhibits communication. There are those who are more comfortable embracing change and who are more willing to allow those changes to be reflected in speaking and writing. Those folks, the descriptivists, tend to describe the rules of language rather than prescribe what they should be.

It can be an uneasy relationship. Prescriptivists think descriptivists are sloppy, uneducated, and the ultimate downfall of the English language. Descriptivists think prescriptivists are judgmental, blind to how language is actually used, and equally the ultimate downfall of the English language. Debates can rage on for years, centuries even. Working on Copyediting has me digging into some of these debates. Due to is one such debate. Neologisms is another (as are individual neologisms). Healthful vs. healthy. In the event of vs. in case of. The list keeps growing.

I don't see prescriptivism and descriptivism as mutually exclusive enemies but more of a range. As an editor, I'm bound to be a prescriptivist to a certain degree, but I also see the value in describing the language as it is and embracing change to a certain degree — and that degree is variable. It all hinges on communicating meaning. I have a checklist in my head that I run through before allowing something new in writing, such as:

  • Does the word in question mean what the author intends it to mean?
  • Will the audience understand what the author means by this word?
  • Does the word fit the style and tone of the text?
  • Is the word acceptable or appropriate for the audience?
  • Will any connotations of the word inhibit the author's intended message?

Prescriptivists and descriptivists can learn from each other, wherever they lie on the continuum. I have been learning a great deal from the Copyediting readers and my new readers here. I have to research and defend my choices. I am reminded of good reasons to follow more traditional rules. I often edit web content, which is more relaxed. Exercising my prescriptivism muscles helps me do a better job editing by thinking more about my decisions rather than just making them on autopilot. I hope that I am helping prescriptivisms prescriptivists to think a little more about the rule changes, to see the value in some of those changes, and to be a little more comfortable with situations that can go either way.

Writers can learn from this dichotomy, too. If you stretch all your muscles, both prescriptivism and descriptivism, you'll be in better shape to write for different audiences, produce different effects in your writing, and think in a different way. It can also enhance the writer-editor relationship. If you recognize your editor is a strict prescriptivist (or descriptivist) and you're a strict descriptivist (or prescriptivist), it's far easier to note that upfront and ask your editor to edit to your language style than it is to fight over every change later.

This isn't a new debate, and smarter folks than I have commented on it. For more on prescriptivism and descriptivism, check out the following links:

Where do you fall on the prescriptivism-descriptivism continuum? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 27th 2010, 11:20 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I love Erin Brenner's clear, simple exposition of a complicated subject!
Monday December 27th 2010, 12:29 PM
Comment by: Waldo G. (London United Kingdom)
Although I enjoyed the clarification between 'prescriptivist/descriptivist' I would have enjoyed this column more, or found it more useful, if it had explained the actual difference between 'attributable to' and 'because of' - don't they mean the same, anyway? Please explain, someone.
Monday December 27th 2010, 7:48 PM
Comment by: carlos C. (miami, FL)
Well you do not even have to speak english too well to understand:
-Your rent is due today
Tuesday December 28th 2010, 6:15 PM
Comment by: Frances L. (Ballwin, MO)
If you're copy editing or just a stickler, here is a simple guideline: "due to" should be used only with a form of the verb "to be": "The X is (was, were) due to Y." Otherwise, use "because of."

BTW, Carlos: Please refer to your dictionary; your example uses a different definition of "due"
Wednesday December 29th 2010, 10:26 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Waldo has expressed my thoughts. What is the difference between "attributable to" and "because of" and, say, "caused by"? It seems to me than "due to" can mean any of the three, in this sentence: "The price increase is due to inflation." - agreed? Someone, please give us a couple of examples of sentences in which the meaning of "due to" is unclear."

I can see that at the beginning of a sentence, one definition might be better than another: "Due to the snow storm, the flight was cancelled." One could substitute "because of" for "due to" in this case, but "attributable to" or "caused by" would not work so well. If we say "The flight was cancelled due to the snow storm", then "because of" still works better than "caused by." But if we say "The flight cancellation was due to the snow storm", then "attributable to" works, and so does "caused by", but "because of" would be awkward.

If this is the basis of the disagreement - which group (prescriptivists/descriptivists) is offended by which of those sentences (above)?

Frances, your guideline is helpful, though I'm still confused. Do sticklers object to starting a sentence with a phrase such as "Due to circumstances beyond my control ..."?

BTW, Frances, I think that Carlos was making a pun, and I liked it!
Wednesday December 29th 2010, 11:40 PM
Comment by: Russell M. B. (Toronto Canada)
Though unaware of its history as controversial, as a sometimes copyeditor, I have suggesting replacing "due to" in sentences such as "Due to the weather, planes will not be departing" with "Because of ..." or a similar construction simply because to my ear the latter sounds more vigorous. "Due to" has always seemed weak to me in this context.

And I love the phrase "skunked term." It's so useful that I wish I had encountered sooner.
Monday January 3rd 2011, 9:40 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Oxford Dictionaries Online (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_us1242387#m_en_us1242387.015) offers a couple of definitions and some example sentences of "due to" that might help:

--"caused by or ascribable to: unemployment due to automation will grow steadily"

--"'attributable to, likely or expected to': the train is due to arrive at 11:15, or 'payable or owed to': render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar."

--"because of; owing to: he had to withdraw due to a knee injury" --This is the skunked usage that causes so many problems

ODO notes that "due to" to mean "because of" is "widespread" and "common" and is a legitimate usage for that reason. I agree, although many of my fellow copyeditors would not. ODO also notes, "The phrase 'due to' the fact that is very common in speech, but it is wordy, and, especially in writing, one should use the simple word 'because.'"

Does that make sense?
Monday January 3rd 2011, 1:07 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Erin, would it be possible to decide which depending on whether one could use a simple 'because' rather than a 'because of a...'

And wouldn't 'the train is due at...' suffice? Does it have to be 'due to arrive at...' which seems wordy?

This phrase 'due to' is a puzzler as far as I'm concerned.
Tuesday January 4th 2011, 9:59 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Jane B., if your sentence would take "because" instead of "because of," then you wouldn't use "due to." And, yes, you could say "the train is due at..." instead. It's less wordy, which is generally a good thing in modern writing.

One of the wonderful things about English is the variety. We don't *have* to use "due to" if it puzzles us, annoys us (or the reader), or for any other reason. We have so many other ways to say the same thing. This is one reason a living language changes; if people stop using a word or phrase because they don't understand it or don't like it, that word or phrase can die off. To me, it's fascinating to watch such a phenomenon happen.

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