Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

On Account of My Peeve

Recently I was writing a tweet and typed "on account of." Something about it seemed wrong to me, but I couldn't say what. I rewrote my tweet, determined to look into the troubling phrase when I had a moment.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines on account of as "for the sake of, by reason of," and The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms lists its meaning as "because of something," as do other dictionaries. I was reaching for the latter meaning in my tweet, and the idiom dictionary gives the phrase some credence as a set phrase.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) states that on account of has been in use since 1792 and is considered casual speech. "Most [usage commentators] give it at least grudging acceptance, if only because they regard it as the lesser of two evils." (The greater of the two evils is using on account of to mean because, which is considered nonstandard English.) MWDEU notes that on account of appears in print, but not as frequently as because of, which is backed up by Google Ngrams:

Interestingly, The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors suggests using on account of instead of due to. I don't think anyone's listening, though. Due to and because of are both more common in books between 1800 and 2008, with because of only recently becoming more popular than due to:

I'm not sure on account of is fitting for more formal copy. A search for the term in the Corpus of Contemporary American English returns 997 results, most of them from fiction:

In the kind of town where I grew up, few distinctions were made on account of money unless you were outright redheaded trash. —Roxanna Slade, 2011 (fiction)

However, a sizable chunk of the results came from academic writing:

Thus within the pale of Christendom, miracles become a central feature of the process of canonization. Believers, moreover, accept doctrines that are beyond reason not on account of miracles, but on account of authority. —Church History, September 2006

That last example just strikes a wrong chord for me, though. But then, I hesitated putting the phrase in a casual tweet.

On account of is acceptable English and is especially at home in casual writing or speech. You might even use it in more formal situations, such as academic writing. In my editing, I'll let it stand when it fits the text. In my writing, though, I'll pet my peeve and leave it out.

What do you think: would you use on account of in your writing?

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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:

Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 1:25 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
I'm with you, Erin. It sounds too much like something that would come out of the mouth of Huck Sawyer for my tastes.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 1:48 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
UK English has no problems with "on account of", but considers it to be a little more formal, as illustrated by this BBC World Service answer:

To me, as a native speaker of UK English, "due to", "owing to", "on account of", and "because of" all have a slightly different feel. I would have no hesitation in using any of them, but it all depends on the context.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 2:12 AM
Comment by: Anthony L. (New Haven, CT)
For me, the phrase "on account of" is a tautology. I just avoid using it in written and spoken English. But that's a personal preference on my part.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 2:48 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Are we becomimg a bit too pedantic here? Isn't language all about communicating an idea? To me, all three usages present the same idea of comparison, of cause and effect.
Maybe we are sharpening the stick a little too finely.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 2:52 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Not to be picky. I do enjoy these discussions of "proper" language use based on USAGE. So, be kind!
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 7:33 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Never! I agree with Sue that it's pure "Huck Sawyer". "Due to" is also ugly and inelegant.

Language is not only about communication, Roger. Beauty matters too.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 8:40 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Of course, it is, my friend! I couldn't agree more!
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 8:58 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder! And, language IS communication. You had best use language that your listener or reader understands, if you want your input to be considered. Flowerly descriptions mean nothing if the audience doesn't know what the flower looks like.

I agree with Roger Dee, are we being a little pedantic? All three phrases are used regularly in the midwest section of U.S. I've not seen anything in the comments above that would reveal any hard rule of grammar or definition to make any choice correct or incorrect.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 9:45 AM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I take "on account of" followed by a clause to be casual, and more appropriate in the speech of Beaver Cleaver than in formal writing. I also heard it in a Benny Hill sketch in which he was explaining the names of a litter of puppies:

I call this one Greyhound, on accounta he's the grayest.
I call this one Happy, on accounta he's the gayest.
I call this one Meanie, on accounta he's the me-anest.
But I call this one Liberace, on accounta he's the peein'-est.

But "on account of" plus a noun phrase just seems like a normal prepositional phrase to me.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Sue B. and Graeme R. ... of course I remember Huck Finn from Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Huck Sawyer? I don't believe I've met the gentleman.

The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Susan C.
I agree with Alice. All the variations ["due to", "owing to", "on account of", and "because of"] produce a different effect and aren't interchangeable to my ear. How they are used seems to affect that. And the "Huck Sawyer" impression strikes me often with "on account of"--but not always; perhaps Neal has hit it on the head.

Or maybe it's regional, just as many expressions strike one's ears as "wrong" because they deviate from what one considers standard. I think it helps to know what's standard for your preferred audience so that you don't unconsiously send the wrong impression. On account of your ignorance, ya know?
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 12:58 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
A question for Anthony:
What is tautological about "on acccount of"? I always thought "tautology" meant saying the same thing in different ways (words), resulting in superfluity. Am I missing something somewhere?
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 1:15 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, all, for the comments. As I tried to point out, there's nothing inherently wrong with "on account of." It's a phrase that strikes me oddly sometimes, so I wanted to look closer at it. I agree with Susan C. and others who said that whether to use it or not is about context and knowing your audience. Sometimes "on account of" fits, while other times it might strike a sour note.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 1:57 PM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
I would only use "on account of" in uneducated American dialect.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 3:48 PM
Comment by: Lex F.
Might the origin of the phrase be "by account of?"
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 7:51 PM
Comment by: Anthony L. (New Haven, CT)
Hi, Alice,

By tautology I mean saying what you mean but using too many words to say it.

So the phrase "on account of" seems to me to be a tautology though I am not certain that you would agree with me.

Consider Example One: I am staying home "on account of" being sick.

Consider Example Two: I am staying home "because" I am sick.

Example One sounds wordy and even a tad clumsy to my ear, or, if you will, tautological.

Example Two uses one word (because) instead of three words (on account of).

Incidentally, I am very guilty of being tautological myself.

Frankly, I like to use extra words in my sentence structures for effect. Take the word "both" as in: I love both tea and coffee. The "both" is not necessary in that sentence, it's tautological, but it emphasizes my point so I like it and therefore use it (lol). Yet I cannot defend its use grammatically.

Alas, I think Roger is quite right, it's is pedantic, isn't it? (lol).

Not sure you will agree with me -- but that's my thinking on the matter.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 7:57 PM
Comment by: Anthony L. (New Haven, CT)
Correction on my Typo, sorry.

Alas, I think Roger is quite right, it's is pedantic, isn't it? (lol).

~ Should read ~

Alas, I think Roger is quite right, it's pedantic, isn't it? (lol).
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 8:29 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Thank you Graeme and Roger re/ the importance of beauty in communication. I can see using "on account of" in a dialect. Not only does the sound of the phrase twang a bit, the metaphor could leave a reader cold. It might appeal to an accountant. To use Owen Barfield's wisdom, it lacks "poetic diction," i.e.,"aesthetic imagination." Erin, I think your intuition was whispering to you.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 9:33 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I fully agree with Anthony!
Thank you, Anthony.
I always get a thrill when someone seems to know what I am saying.
In my mundane circles of retirement, it is rare when someone understands what I am trying to say.
Maybe I enjoy using too many words, too.
But, I have a good ear for the language thanks to hearing "proper English" spoken at home as a child in addition to 14 years of academic studies following high school.
Enough of me!
Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 12:54 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
Without tautology, literature would be quite boring. I'm reminded of the story of the cleanup crew foreman, named Finnigin, who sent a detailed report of the train wreck and clean up. The home office sent him a memo requesting him to report only the bare facts in his next report. His next report read, "Off agin, on agin, gone agin, Finnigin".
Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 2:16 AM
Comment by: Gayle Delaney
I quite agree with Erin, Anthony, and Keith! "On account of" brings back echos of the 1950's movie, "Guys and Dolls."

I find it bulky, and corse. Unlike another commentator, I hear "due to" as quite pleasant. Perhaps this is because of my New Jersey education in the 1950's and 60's. Or maybe it is on account of my having heard too many Brooklyn and New Joisey cab drivers!
Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 2:29 AM
Comment by: fmindlin (Watsonville, CA)
As a clear violation of Strunk&White's "few words as possible" dictum, it's never entered my speech. I suppose it could arise now and again through my Southern roots, but it really feels like a tautology, and a dis-euphonious one to boot.
Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 4:33 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Hi Anthony,

Thanks for explaining what you meant. That's a totally new definition of tautology to me.

In the UK, we think of tautology as always involving repetition of an idea.

Example: "My Great Big Fat Greek Wedding"
Here, there are three adjectives (great, big, fat) with identical or similar meanings being used when, technically, just one of those would do. In this sense, where the repetition is used for emphasis, tautology is a good thing.

But there are cases where repetition of ideas in different words is a stylistic "ouch".
Example: The country is going to the dogs, or in other words, the nation is going down the chute.

I was puzzled because "on account of" is a self-contained phrase and I couldn't see any sign of repetition there at all. However, if you're using tautology as a general term for wordiness, I agree with you that "on account of" is too wordy for simple phrases.
Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 8:10 AM
Comment by: Anthony L. (New Haven, CT)
Hello, Alice,

As you conclude correctly, I adopted a less restrictive definition for tautology. For me, any excessive wordage in a sentence constitutes a repetition of ideas and therefore I deemed it a tautology (since, after all, words convey ideas).

At the same time, I have no disagreement with your definition of tautology and its application. I am perfectly comfortable in adopting both stances on the matter.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.
Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 10:59 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
I'm a bit surprised at how many responses this article got. That's a good thing.
Due to the number of comments relating to tautology, I had to check with Webster (again) and expand my understanding of the term. I thought it had to do with repeating the subject in the predicate. Alas, it is "...the needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word." Does it then differ from redundancy?
Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Hi Keith,

Since I was puzzled at different understandings of tautology, I looked up a few more sources as well. There's an interesting Wikipedia article on it which explains things at length: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tautology_%28rhetoric%29
(the "%28" and "%29" stand for parentheses, in case this link doesn't work first time)
I haven't read all of that yet for lack of time, but the first few paragraphs are interesting. Especially the one relating to the difference between tautology (not necessarily always redundancy) and pleonasm (definitely always redundancy).

One thing that made me laugh is that, at the beginning of the article, there is a comment that "This article may contain too much repetition or redundant language."

Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 11:26 AM
Comment by: William M. (Chevy Chase, MD)
On account of seems wordy and strained. I think it should be avoided. Would be used by the same person who says "because of the fact that"

Liked your piece!
Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, William. The trend in writing these days is toward short, simpler writing. There's something to be said for redundancies in certain cases (read: http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/the-reason-why-theres-nothing-wrong/), but we value writing that says things in fewer words, with obvious exceptions for literature. As a copyeditor, I was trained to reduce wordiness. The problem for both writers and editors is that saying something with fewer words means taking *more* time to write, revise, and edit. Publishing demands generally don't allow for that.
Wednesday November 23rd 2011, 2:41 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
"On account of" sounds like much more responsible phrase, whereas "due to" is not. This is my way of thinking.
Though Ms. Erin's research surfaced the trend, however when we use the phrase in our writing or conversation our subtle mind guided us to pick the right one.
Actually, none of us want to bear/witness/experience any responsibility for anything.
Thursday November 24th 2011, 5:28 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Thanks Alice In Germanland. I especially appreciated the inclusion of the Wikipedia links to tautology, etc. Fascinating and informative material. I didn't know the word pleonasm before.
I am vowing now not to be repetitiously redundant.
keith m. kula, maui

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