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Writers Talk About Writing

The Reason Why Is Because...

Pop quiz time, readers! Which of the following sentences is correct?

  1. The reason why they got married is they love each other.
  2. The reason that they got married is they love each other.
  3. The reason they got married is they love each other.
  4. The reason why they got married is because they love each other.

That's a lot of choices, but it's a trick question. They're all right. Skeptical? Read on.

Reason Why

Many usage writers decry reason why as redundant. Why, they point out, means "for what reason," giving us "reason for what reason." That's true, but it's also true that why means "for which," resulting in "reason for which."

Even among usage writers who limit why's definition, though, many accept this slight redundancy as idiomatic. As I've noted before, sometimes redundancy is helpful for emphasis or clarity. In Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, Theodore Bernstein notes that not only is reason why always idiomatic and correct, in some cases you need it to avoid awkward constructions. Change I see no reason, sound or unsound, why he is tired to I see no reason, sound or unsound, he is tired, and you can hear the clunk.

Reason That

Those who dislike reason why will often suggest replacing it with reason that:

There is a reason that the major zoos in America are closing their elephant exhibits.—Denver Post (2012)

It's a legitimate, grammatical choice most of the time. But let's try it in Bernstein's example:

I see no reason, sound or unsound, that he is tired.

The result is awkward and unidiomatic. But those aren't the only options.

Reason Is Because

Another option writers have is to use reason is because:

Another reason is because Helmand province produces more poppy than any region on earth.—Solomon Moore, "Where the Afghan War Is Fought Hardest" (2011)

There are two arguments against this option. One is that because means "for the reason that," resulting in "the reason is for the reason that." Another slight redundancy, but one that can offer emphasis. Note, too, that because can also mean "that," giving us "reason is that," oddly enough the solution many critics suggest.

The second argument against reason is because is that reason is needs to be followed by a noun clause (i.e., a clause that acts as a noun), but because can only introduce an adverbial clause (i.e., a clause that acts as an adverb):

Duncan rode his bike yesterday because it was the first day of summer vacation. [the because clause answers the question "Why did Duncan ride his bike yesterday?]

Yet there is no reason because can't introduce a noun clause:

Jane overslept this morning. That was because she stayed out too late last night.

You'll find that reason is because is used in more complex sentences, with words or phrases appearing within it. The redundancy serves as a signpost, helping readers keep their place in the sentence. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (DEU) offers this example:

The reason for talking about his technique at all is because it was his means of producing light."—John Wain, American Scholar, Summer 1986

Reason Why Is Because

Finally, we can choose reason why is because. It's long, to be sure, and it's less popular in our modern sensibilities, which value direct, concise writing. When it is used these days, you'll find it used like reason is because, with words and phrases splitting it up. Again, the redundancy guides readers through the sentence or emphasizes an important point. DEU gives this example:

The reason why his conclusion concerning Frege's argument seemed plausible at the time was because his propositional constituents are entities rather than the names of those entities.—Ronald J. Butler, Philosophical Rev. (1954)

Reason why is because is most frequently found in literary writing, past and current, which makes sense. The phrase is best suited to long, complex sentences, and literary and academic works specialize in such sentences.

Making a Choice

Now that you understand that you have several choices—reason is, reason why, reason that, reason is because, reason why is because—how will you choose?

It's a matter of writing style. A good approach is the simpler the sentence, the simpler the phrase you use. Reason is is brief and direct, while reason why is because is long and easily dividable.

But even simple sentences can benefit from extra emphasis sometimes:

The reason why is because they love each other.

If the longer phrases suit your writing style, use them. If they don't, use the shorter ones. When choosing between reason why or reason that, remember that reason that can sometimes sound unidiomatic.

None of these phrases are going away anytime soon. But critics aren't going away, either. Know your audience, choose the phrase that suits you, and be prepared for kickback once in a while.


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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 June 30th, 3:06 AM
Comment by: jphmedisys (Montgomery, AL)
I prefer, "they got married because they love each other".
This was not a listed choice, but clearly conveys idea intended in direct, succinct statement.

Tell me what objections arise.
Monday June 30th, 5:47 AM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
That's fine, too.
Monday June 30th, 7:01 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
The discussion proves once again that grammar is more about arbitrary rules than it is about logic.
Monday June 30th, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
I can use the "unidiomatic" test to help me make lots of grammatical decisions.
Monday June 30th, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
I see no reason for debating the reason for reasoning reason. It reminds me of the story about a train wreck. The forman of the clean up crew sent a three page dissertation to his supervisor, describing the process from beginning to end. His supervisor sent him a terse reprimand for being long winded. The next report was short, concise, and to the point. Off again, on again, gone agin. singed by Finigin.
Monday June 30th, 9:32 AM
Comment by: marc E. (Pacific Palisades, CA)
I'm with jphmedisys and Kenneth P. This entire discussion focuses on a topic more easily solved with a good sentence restructure, and emphasis added by using words such as "additionally" and "moreover". Without any reference to these options, the entire article stretches the cover for woefully redundant speech.
Monday June 30th, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Rachael (Chicago, IL)
Three cheers for Dr. Hagler and his fellow travelers. I routinely ask my high school students to avoid constructions that can be restated in fewer words, often achieving greater clarity in the bargain. Clauses and phrases clarify or obfuscate. The litmus test is "What meaning do I want reader to grasp?" Grammar is for conveying precise meaning, not showing off a bunch of rules. The rules merely describe the job being done. Grammar is carpentry--beautiful cabinetry and strong joists take skill and care. So it is with conveying meaning. Is a piece of writing plumb? square? structurally sound? economical with "materials" such as precise verbs, worthy adverbs and adjectives for the meaning (including tone) desired?
Monday June 30th, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Susan C. (Irvine, CA)
I think the sentence, "Even among usage writers who limit why's definition, though, many who accept this slight redundancy as idiomatic" could lose the second "who" and would thereby become even clearer.

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Monday June 30th, 4:23 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Rachael, your metaphor is excellent! Thank you!

I do as much wood working as word working, and I'm chagrined that I never connected the two, but I can see that it's not surprising that I enjoy both crafts, as they use corresponding principles, skills, materials and even tools. I will copy your comment and save it in my "writing" file!

I have noticed many similarities between visual art and writing (for example, the principles of design apply to both), but I hadn't really included carpentry among the visual arts. But some of the best carpentry is inspired and created to perform a function, and ends up succeeding as 3-D sculpture as well.

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday July 2nd, 5:20 AM
Comment by: Brigitte E. (Collbató Spain)
More than a comment i would like to ask a question.
I have been teaching British English to Catalan and Spanish speakers for years. English is not my mothertongue.
Our texbooks and grammar books are in British English. According to them, sentences 1 and 4 would be the right ones. This is also what I learned during my English Philology studies at university.
I have realized that in American English 'that' is much more often used, even as normal non-defining relative clause.
Could that be an explanation for Erin's finding sentence 2 correct?
Brigitte
Sunday July 6th, 6:36 AM
Comment by: Ed S.
Thank you for raising this issue.

In my book, "Govopoly," I develop the notion that causality and "trigger models" do not provide much of a basis for understanding dynamic systems. Feedback models provide a better basis.

Your four sentences all invoke causality. As such, none of them, ultimately, make any sense.

For example, you might consider interpreting the sentence to imply that all lovers marry. The sentence also includes the possibility of the loving couple marrying other people.

You don't have a grammar problem as much as a logic problem. Using SVO-p (Subject, Verb, Object - present tense) grammar tends to weed out such problems.








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