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Blame Excuses: Where to Point the Finger

"Deer Creek blames fire on science experiment," read one headline. "Arsonist blames fire on living conditions," said another.

Some people would take umbrage with both of those sentences, asserting that the finger of blame was pointing in the wrong direction. The preposition wanted here, they would say, is "for," not "on."

Theodore M. Bernstein's classic Watch Your Language has been carrying this banner for years: "Blame on always has been and remains a casualism, no matter how many people have used it carelessly," he wrote in 1958.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, which owes a great deal to Bernstein, agrees:

Use this construction: The rescuers blamed the weather for the wreck. Do not use blame on: The rescuers blamed the wreck on the weather. Though dictionaries accept both usages, the more traditional has logic on its side: Blame the cause, never the effect.

Garner's Modern American Usage seems to agree:

In the best usage, one blames a person; one does not, properly, blame a thing on a person — e.g., "I blame him for the fires." (Not: I blame the fires on him.)

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which, sadly, has not been updated since 1994, says the "blame on" construction is older than "blame for," which did not appear until 1835. As so often happens, in the late 1800s someone got a bug over a presumed deterioration in grammar (see split infinitives). In this case, M-W says, in 1881 "the pseudonymous Alfred Ayres" called "blame on" "a gross of vulgarism which we sometimes hear from persons of considerable culture." As M-W continued, "Ayres does not stop to explain why it is a vulgarism or how are such cultured persons are capable of using such a vulgarism — or even to prescribe blame for."

The tide has been changing since the mid-20th century, and many usage authorities consider "blame on" to be standard English, "as indeed it had been all the time," M-W says.

Using "blame on," which accuses the outcome instead of the cause, instead of "blame for," which points the finger at the cause, is at Stage 4 of Garner's five-stage Language-Change Index. That means only "persons of considerable culture," or fuddy-duddies, worry about misusing it.

Unless you're a fuddy-duddy, or adhere to a style guide that wants you to blame something for something, you can be blameless, regardless of which way you point the finger. However, which finger you choose to point may be more to blame.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 30th 2013, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great analysis. I think it points up the fact that usage authorities get a crusty reputation because they obsess about things that don't matter much semantically. Credit Rita Hayworth for some popular usage:

Tuesday April 30th 2013, 9:23 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I'm glad for this distinction in my effort to use standard English.
Both usages sound OK to my ear. That is why I'm glad for the details.
Tuesday April 30th 2013, 10:30 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I only know what sounds right to my ear, in this matter. I would say "I blame you for the whole catastrophe!" Never "I blame you on the whole catastrophe". That would sound very odd. Very 'English as she is spoke.'

But I might also say "Blame it on the weather". Hey. I could say "I put the blame on you for the whole catastrophe."

More educated minds than mine can straighten this out. All I have is my fiction-writer's ear.
Tuesday April 30th 2013, 4:26 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
But, Roberta, but doesn't "I blame the entire catastrophy on you!" sound OK?

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