With the recent elevation of “because x” to Word of the Year 2013 (as in because reasons, because awesome), there has been some confusion about how exactly to describe this new construction. Is it because+noun, as described by the earliest commenters? Is it because-as-preposition, as described by some other people? Or is it something else, perhaps not exclusive to because? (Spoiler alert: this is where I’m going to end up.)
There has been a lot of discussion about this on twitter and in various comment sections, but I’ve yet to see a post laying out diagnostics in full. I’m going to concentrate on the arguments for because as preposition, because a quick look at the data (because useful, because yay) clearly shows that the “because x” construction isn’t limited to nouns.
What is a preposition, exactly?
If we want to argue about because as a preposition, it’s helpful to know exactly what a preposition is. Here’s Merriam-Webster with a pretty standard definition:
a word or group of words that is used with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, location, or time, or to introduce an object
Canonical examples of prepositions are words like under, on, of, towards, by, for, into and so on. Longer phrases like on top of can also be considered preposition-y.
Does because act like other prepositions?
Let’s start with the classic “because reasons”. Can we have a preposition in the same construction?
I want this because reasons. (because + noun)
I want this for reasons.
My thoughts are starting to turn towards reasons.
I shall overwhelm your faulty logic with reasons.
Seems okay. Even if you think that for is sometimes a subordinating conjunction (and you’d be right, but we’ll get to that later), we can still have reasons with other prepositions like towards and with, so we’re okay so far.
Let’s try some noun phrases. As I observed quite a while ago, because is weird with some noun phrases like “my homework”. Prepositions like with and towards, on the other hand, don’t care.
I can’t go to the party because homework. (because + noun)
??I can’t go to the party because my homework (because + noun phrase)
I can’t pass in my homework because THE DOG (because + noun phrase)
I am overwhelmed with (my) homework.
My thoughts are starting to turn towards (my) homework.
I saw my homework with/under THE DOG.
Uh-oh. Prepositions are probably not supposed to care about which kinds of noun phrases they’re found with, especially since “homework” and “my homework” should be equally pragmatically possible.
Moreover, prepositions are fine with pronouns, but because is rather weird.
??I can’t go to the party because you. (because + pronoun)
I can’t go to the party with you.
But what’s really the last straw for because as a preposition is the fact that you can freely find it with adjectives, interjections, and even certain verbs (not all verbs though), which is really not true of any preposition ever.
I can’t go to the party because tired. (because + adjective)
I’m talking about things I like because yay. (because + interjection)
I’m talking about things I like because want. (because + verb)
*I’m talking about things I like because adore. (because + verb)
for tired? under tired? towards tired? with tired?
for yay? under yay? towards yay? with yay?
for want? under want? towards want? with want?
You can maybe get “I’m overwhelmed with tired/want”, but in that case, tired/want is really a synonym for tiredness/wanting, both nouns. (For example, you can modify them with adjectives “with great tiredness” or “with great want”.)
What if we use a different definition of preposition?
Some people treat subordinating conjunctions, that is words that introduce a subordinate clause, as a type of preposition. For example, the Penn Treebank category IN is used for both. From the annotation guidelines:
We make no explicit distinction between prepositions and subordinating conjunctions. (The distinction is not lost, however — a preposition is an IN that precedes a noun phrase or a prepositional phrase, and a subordinate conjunction is an IN that precedes a clause.)
Here’s a definition of a subordinating conjunction (from Macmillan because MW oddly doesn’t have an entry for subordinating conjunction):
a word such as “because”, “while”, “that”, “which” or “who” that begins a subordinate clause and connects it to the main part of the sentence
A few more examples of subordinating conjunctions include although, after, before, as long as. (Compare coordinating conjunctions like and and or.) And here are some example sentences, with subordinate clauses bolded:
The reasons which I want this for are complex.
I want this answer before I leave.
From discussion with Neal Whitman on Twitter, I believe that the subordinating conjunction = preposition usage is the one he was intending in his Grammar Girl piece on because, although casual description of “because x” as prepositional dates back to an earlier Language Log post.
It’s not inherently a bad idea to consider subordinating conjunctions a type of preposition. If you want to limit the number of names for lexical categories that you’re dealing with, then there are enough similarities between these two categories that it can make sense to combine them. However, there are two problems with using this type of conflation as an argument that the new use of because is prepositional.
Firstly, under this definition, the old because was already a preposition because it’s always been able to introduce either a prepositional phrase (like a strict preposition) or a clause (like a subordinating conjunction). These are the classic uses of because.
I want this because of reasons (because + prepositional phrase)
I can’t go to the party because of tiredness.
I want this because I have my reasons (because + clause)
I can’t go to the party because I’m tired.
Secondly, there is still no provision for either type of preposition (the subordinating conjunction or the preposition-preposition) being followed by an adjective or interjection, which we’ve already seen is an important aspect of the new because.
So how should we describe the new because?
Well, you may have noticed that I’ve been using “because x”, which I think is a fairly good neutral term, but of course it still raises the question of what “x” is exactly.
So far we’ve seen because with nouns, certain noun phrases, adjectives, interjections, and certain verbs. What do these have in common?
I’m talking about things I like because want.
I’m talking about things I like because need.
*I’m talking about things I like because adore.
*I’m talking about things I like because desire.
Pragmatically, these should all be equally plausible, but only the want and need examples are acceptable. What’s different about them?
One thing to note is that want and need already exist as independent expressions in a way that adore and desire don’t, at least in internet registers that overlap with that of “because x”. So you can say “omg want" or "omg need" (both well-populated as tumblr tags) but not "omg adore or “omg desire" (both with zero results as tumblr tags).
It seems that whether a verb is acceptable in a “because x” construction is directly linked to whether it can be used as an interjection. So it’s not that because is being used with verbs per se, it’s more so that it’s being used with things that can be interjected, which can belong to multiple parts of speech.
(Although note that while I think that this is a better analysis than because-as-preposition, I’m still not completely sure that reasons in ”because reasons” is really an interjection, so there may be more refining to do, especially for nouns.)
It’s not just because: ”Ergo Noodles”
The class of subordinating conjunctions that can relatively-newly take interjectionary complements is actually not limited to “because”. There are lots of other examples such as but, thus, so, which, since, and even ergo. (Via discussion on Twitter here.)
I was considering going to the party but tired.
I didn’t bother cooking anything since whatever.
I didn’t want to talk out loud, thus text messaging. (via Neal Whitman)
Why noodles? Noodles ergo noodles. (via Fritinancy)
In fact, I think this is even more interesting. 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. Instead, it’s that subordinating conjunctions as a class are appearing in a new type of construction, that is, with interjectional complements in addition to the prepositional phrases and clauses that we’ve seen for a long time. Harder to explain maybe, but the data’s very robust and the results are pretty cool.
Certain words like because may have advanced further along this process than others, but it’s definitely not limited to just it. (Teresa Galloway on Twitter observes that ASL has long had a “because x” construction, so there’s probably some interesting cross-linguistic work to be done as well.) Hopefully, we’ll keep seeing more data, especially for other languages or with words other than because.
Also! Do Laura Bailey’s survey on “because” so we can have some stats on what people find acceptable.