Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Why is the Word of the Year "Because"? Because...

For 24 years, the American Dialect Society has chosen a Word of the Year at its annual meeting in January. Typically, the word has been a noun or verb that has risen to prominence during the previous year. For example, the 2011 WOTY was the verb occupy, and the 2012 WOTY was the noun hashtag. Sometimes it's even an adjective, as in 2007, when the winner was subprime.

But this year, strong candidates such as selfie and twerk ultimately lost to a word that isn't a noun, verb, or adjective; doesn't describe some cultural phenomenon; and has been in continuous use in English for more than 700 years: because.

How did that happen?

It has to do with a new development in the syntax of because. Here's what Ben Zimmer wrote about it in his recap of the WOTY voting in his Word Routes column:

[B]ecause … in traditional grammar introduces a full clause stating a reason ("I love ice cream because it's delicious") or works together with of to introduce an explanatory noun ("I love ice cream because of its delicious flavor"). What has been happening lately online, especially on Twitter and Tumblr, is that people use because with a more terse follow-up: introducing a noun ("I love ice cream because flavor"), an adjective ("I love ice cream because delicious"), or an interjection ("I love ice cream because yum!").

I wrote about this phenomenon in an episode of Mignon Fogarty's Grammar Girl podcast in October. At the time, I referred to the construction as "because NOUN," taking the name from two blog posts from 2012, one written by Laura Bailey on her Linguist Laura blog, the other by Mark Liberman on Language Log.

The following month, Stan Carey wrote about it on his Sentence First blog, kindly linking to my Grammar Girl piece as well as the original sources I'd cited. He noted that it wasn't just nouns that could follow because in this way (see Zimmer's examples above), and also highlighted what Gretchen McCulloch, another linguist-blogger had said on her All Things Linguistic blog, back in 2012: not just any noun or noun phrase worked in this construction. For that reason, Carey chose to call it "because X" instead of "because NOUN" or "because as a preposition."

Carey's post is what seems to have started the fire. One week later, Megan Garber published an article on because in The Atlantic, and other blogs and online news sources followed. Carey's post, meanwhile, continued to rack up comments for the next month, 108 at time of this writing. Carey also updated his post to include links to the articles in The Atlantic and other places.

Some of these articles sum up the new usage by saying that because has become a preposition. For example, Fogarty titled the Grammar Girl episode "Because as a Preposition," Carey and Garber referred to a "new preposition" in their titles. However, as McCulloch wrote in a new blog post following the WOTY vote, "It's not that because is newly a preposition: depending on your definition, it's either still not a preposition or it always has been." She's right. I didn't bring this up in the Grammar Girl episode, because I didn't want to get too hardcore on the listening audience, but if you've read this far, I think you can handle it. Let's review exactly what part of speech because is.

Traditionally, when because introduces a clause, such as "Many flights were canceled because a polar vortex was creating hazardous conditions," it has been called a subordinating conjunction. However, Rodney Huddleston and Geoff Pullum argue in their Cambridge Grammar of the English Language that because, along with most other subordinating conjunctions (except for that, whether, and the whether-substitute if) should be classified as … prepositions. Some prepositions, such as after, can take clauses or noun phrases as complements: "after we woke up," "after the storm."

Other prepositions, like with, take only noun phrases: "with a telescope," but "with we arrived at the party" is not. And still others, like although, take only clausal complements, as in "although they'd done nothing wrong," but not "although you." But they're still all prepositions, Huddleston and Pullum argue, just like remember is still a verb, whether it takes a noun phrase complement ("Remember the Alamo!"), an infinitival complement ("remember to pay the water bill"), or a that-clause ("remembered that he had an appointment"). For further arguments, see pages 1011-1014 in CGEL, or see this Language Log post by Pullum, following the election of because as WOTY.

What about because followed by an of-prepositional phrase, as in because of you? In the Grammar Girl episode, I went with traditional grammarians and said the bigram because of was a compound preposition. But this stance is untenable in light of the examples in Pullum's blog post, in which the because and the of are separated by other words or phrases. Instead, we just say that in addition to clausal complements, the preposition because can take of-prepositional phrases as complements.

And finally, we come to because X. If X is a noun phrase, then all that means is that after 700 years, because has gained a bit more functionality as a preposition, and like before and after, can now take both clausal and noun phrase complements. When you look at it that way, it's no more exciting than the fact that people now say graduated college as well as graduated from college. Either way, graduate is still a verb.

So yes, because is a preposition, but not on account of this new usage. But there's still the question of exactly what kind of complement this particular prepositional flavor of because takes. In her most recent blog post on this topic, Gretchen McCulloch  grapples with the variety of, and restrictions on, X in because X. Her generalization is that whether it's a bare noun, a full noun phrase, an adjective, a verb, or an interjection, the X component has to be able to stand alone as an utterance. Interjections can certainly do this: Yay! Duh! So can some noun and adjective phrases: No school! Awesome! So can some verbs: Want! But not all nouns, adjectives, and verbs can stand alone, and those that can't are not compatible with because X. For example, McCulloch points out that "because want" is common, but "because desire" is not.

As for the meaning of because X, many of the commenters on the blog posts have stated that people who use it are being humorous or cynical: The idea is that these speakers are taking on the point of view of someone so excited, distracted, stupid, or inarticulate that they can't be bothered to explain their reasons in full. This is true, especially in some of the earlier examples of because X, which take the form because, hey, X, or because, y'know, X, noted in 2011 by John Baker on the American Dialect Society's email list.The hey or y'know signals the speaker's difficulty in articulating the full thought.

However, the freshest examples of because X don't fit McCulloch's rule that X can stand alone, and they're not used ironically. In my piece for Grammar Girl, I began with quotations from an article in Slate, in which young children explained their choices for their favorite Pixar movies. As I wrote there:

A five-year-old chose Toy Story 2, "Because Evil Emperor Zurg!" A four-year-old liked Monster Inc. "Because the day care." A six-year-old chose Monsters University, "because the part where Sully has the big roar and scares all the policemen."

"Because the part where Sully has the big roar and scares all the policemen" — a straightforward and articulate reason, expressed in a complex noun phrase that can't stand alone as a complete thought. To quote myself again, I offered this explanation:

As for the transition from the sarcastic usage to the sarcasm-free usage by younger speakers, we know that irony goes right over kids' heads.  As they're learning the language as toddlers, they hear "Because NOUN" and just put it in with all the other grammar they're learning.

So in the future, we might have not just one new use of because as a preposition, but two: the exclamatory because X, where X can be anything uttered with feeling, and the more pedestrian because X, where X is a noun phrase (or maybe an adjective phrase). This version of because will mean the same thing as because of, and might well come to replace it, because shorter.

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.