Mailbag Rant: What You Say AND How You Say It

People correct me all the time. It’s part of my job — my publishers pay both my editors and my copyeditors to tell me not just what I did right, but also what I did wrong. In fact, the copyeditors ONLY tell me what I did wrong, or what they think I did wrong, which is not necessarily the same thing. But either way it isn’t personal.

So I get this e-mail …

SUBJECT: THAT, not because

The only thing I can make out from the title is that it’s probably not spam. I recognize the name of the sender, so I go ahead and open it.

Oh, Holly, Holly, Holly,

This is not a promising start. The translation of this beginning is Oh, your poor, stupid, deluded fool …, which is not the kindest thing anyone has suggested about me that day.

Is it that you live in the South and you think it’s right, or were you just writing sloppily, or is it that I am so old that the rule has actually changed? I’m really asking. The correct grammar used to be to say, “The reason I wanted to write was that…”, not “The reason I wanted to write was because…” I am 58 and am really irritated by this oh, so prevalent mistake that I read in EVERY book I pick up. I fear that if I ever get anything published the typesetter is going to change it all into popular speech pattern and he won’t even know he’s wrong.

The unpromising start gets worse. My choices are 1) I am stupid because I live in the South (because Southerners are stoopid — everybody knows that), 2) I was careless and sloppy, 3) she was right but somebody sneakily changed the rules.

Please forgive me this criticism. I should get my own website with a rant section, right?

My problem isn’t with the criticism; I get that all the time. My problem is with the tone. But hey, I’m a big girl. I can take my lumps.

There’s more — different subject, also some insulting implications — but this is someone who’d written a couple of nice e-mails and said she liked my work, and hey, I am a professional: I know I make mistakes, because there are people who get paid to find them and tell me to fix them. So I check the post, then go through my reference books and look up the issue in question. My way is perfectly acceptable, though grammarians don’t like it. Writers do, though, and have for three hundred years. I could just let the issue lie. But she says, “I’m really asking.”** So, (maybe I am a poor, stupid, deluded fool, because I believed her when she said that) I write back.

Because OR That

According to my Mirriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “If ‘because’ can refer to a pronoun like ‘it,’ ‘this,’ or ‘that,’ there is no reason it should not refer to a noun like ‘reason.’ … The grammatical objection has no basis in principle. It is erected ad hoc to rationalize dislike of ‘the reason is because’ and is not invoked in other cases where because introduces a noun clause.”

I have citations of correct usage of ‘reason is because’ all the way from Francis Bacon in 1625 to The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats in 1953.

So English hasn’t changed, I wasn’t writing sloppily, and ‘reason is because’ is both acceptable AND correct usage, and has been for longer than either you or I have been around. [g] For what it’s worth.

Please forgive me this criticism. I should get my own website with a rant section, right?

Or a copy of the Dictionary of English Usage. It’s a great de-stressor, especially if you had an English teacher whose excessive views of what constituted correct grammar are taking the fun out of your reading.

And that should be it, right? I consulted my sources, found out that her way was acceptable but that my way was also acceptable, sent a polite, friendly e-mail that was the equivalent of STET, and we move on.

But no.

She writes back:

In that type of sentence ‘because’ is not referring to ‘reason’, It is referring to ‘is’. With ‘because’ you are stating that the reason exists (is) because of something, not stating what the reason consists of. You could say, “I have a reason because…”, but to say, “The reason IS because,” is not stating what you mean to say. You mean to state what the reason consists of, “The reason is that…”

Well, no it wasn’t, and no, I didn’t. Got my references right here in front of me, and in spite of being Stoopid in the South, I do know how to read. I checked the applicable rule, which meant that it referred to the way I had used the word. But I think, ‘Hey, people get this stuff hammered into their brains by rigid English teachers.’ So I send along a few examples.

“The reason every one now tries to avoid it, to deny that it is important, to make it seem vain to try to do it, is because it is so difficult.” Ernest Hemmingway

“And the reason why we are often louder than the players is, because we think we speak with more wit.” William Wycherly, The Country Wife, 1675

“…they live in their own right, and the reason is because Sturt was not only aware but also because nature, thought and experience had made him compassionate.” Times Literary Supp., 13 July 1967

“The reason the story has never been made into a film is because I won’t sign a contract.” E. B. White, letter, 28 Oct, 1969

I concede that you have a right not to like my sentence, but it is not in any way ungrammatical or incorrect.

All best,

And now we’re done, right?

But no.

She writes back:

The reason is (the fact) that it is difficult…

The reason is (the fact) that we think…etc….

Popular usage to the contrary does not make those writers correct. What are they trying to state? The reason. They mean to state WHAT the reason is, not WHY it is. To state that it is ‘because’ is to state WHY, not WHAT.

Okay. So I’m wrong, my ever-so-useful reference books are wrong, three hundred years of writers a hell of a lot better than me are wrong. (There are a LOT of other examples; I was just too lazy to type them all.) But she is right, which is the important thing.

To which all you can really say is, “Have a nice life.”

11:44 AM Addendum: Apparently there IS more you can say, because she sent me yet another e-mail insisting that she is right, and that the vast pool of grammarians, writers, and editors and other literary folk who put together my reference books, plus three centuries and then some of people who got paid to use the language correctly, (and who no doubt also stuck with this particular locution in the face of their own copyeditors) are all wrong. ALL of them. Who’d have thought discussing grammar would be like arguing religion. But I’ve put her e-mail on my bounce-back list, so anything further from her will only be read by her. At the point where you’re tempted to bring out the flamethrowers, it’s usually time to walk away.

Honestly, for those of you who see (or think you see) an error on a writer’s site, let him or her know. We’re used to having people tell us we got something wrong; best case, we’ll fix it and be damned grateful for looking less Stoopid. Worst case, we’ll find out we were right, but pass on to you what we found out for you to use. Well, there may be a worse case than that, but not from me.

Just don’t be a jerk about it. How we say things matters — but how you say things matters, too.

** It might be that what she was “really asking” was not if she was right about the grammar question, but instead, if I was really stupid, or really careless, or if someone had come in behind her and changed the rules … but I didn’t think of that at the time.

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