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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Reason Is That, in the Napa Valley . . .

Ms. Picky has just returned from Napa Valley, where she marveled at the lushness of the citrus and cherry trees, the fragrance of the herbs and flowers, and the pleasing patterns of the vines planted geometrically on the rolling hills. Under a perfect blue sky, she took a leisurely drive, and stopped at one of the hundreds of wineries along the route. 

The path to the estate house was flanked by low hedges of rosemary, a clump of lavender grew at the end of each row of vines, and tasting tables had been set up under bright canvas umbrellas. 

The sun shone warmly on Ms. Picky’s face, as someone poured her a light, citrusy pinot blanc. Next came a  fresh, crisp rosé, and then a particularly mellow cabernet, with hints of blackberry. . . .

Under a striped awning, a man took up a fiddle, and soon, one after another, Bluetooth earphones were removed from ears, iPhones laid on the tables, and the small gatherings of people under the shade of the silvery olive trees—enchanted by the environment as much by the wine—put down their glasses and danced.

At that moment, the world seemed a beautiful place. Ms. Picky was so overcome by lovingkindness and Gemütlichkeit that she felt inclined, at least for the day, to drop her proposal of capital punishment for people who say, “The reason is because. . . .” instead of “The reason is that. . . .”

The following week, however, somewhere over Iowa, or maybe Kansas, as Ms. Picky was writing her weekly post, the sky was gray, the plane was cold, there was a fee for blankets and pillows, and the ten-dollar sandwiches the flight attendants were serving were soggy. Ms. Picky began to feel downright peckish. She suggests, therefore, that you pay strict attention to the following lesson. . . .

“The Reason Is Thatvs. “The Reason Is Because

Many otherwise-educated people are oblivious of the incorrectness of the construction “The reason is because. . . .” Let’s look at both the correct and incorrect constructions, to understand what each of them means.

The Correct Sentence 

The reason is that I don't like ETFs (exchange-traded funds).

Here, “is” is a copulative verb, meaning that what follows it [that I don't like ETFs] is a predicate nominative and is therefore in the same case as the subject [reason]—the subjective, or nominative, case. A diagram of the sentence would look like this:

“That” is a relative pronoun. The job of a relative pronoun is to relate to a noun or another pronoun (to relate to one word rather than the entire clause). In the sentence “The reason is that I do not like ETFs,” the relative clause [that I do not like ETFs] relates to the noun “reason,” to which it is linked by the linking, or copulative, verb “is.” Since a linking verb calls for a predicate nominative, what follows “is” must be equivalent to what precedes it. (In this case, “reason” and “that I do not like ETFs” are one and the same thing.)

The Incorrect Sentence

The reason is because I don’t like ETFs.

This sentence is a whole different ballgame, because, here, “because” is a subordinate conjunction. The job of a subordinate conjunction is to join a subordinate, or dependent, clause to an independent, or main, clause. (Some other subordinate conjunctions are unless, if, until, and since.) Subordinate clauses do not relate to individual parts of a main clause; they are joined, or “spliced,” to the entire independent clause.

Since the “because” in “because I do not like ETFs” is a subordinate conjunction, however, its diagram would have to look like this:

Since “because” is a subordinate conjunction, the clause it introduces can only be a subordinate clause, not a relative clause, and a subordinate clause cannot be used as a predicate nominative. That being the case, one can only assume that “is” is being used here in its meaning of existence, not in its meaning of being equivalent to. If this seems confusing, consider this sentence:

In his “Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope said, 
“Whatever is, is right.”

In this sentence, the first “is” uses its meaning of “existence,” i.e., that whatever exists is right. The second “is” uses its meaning of “is equivalent to,” and, as a linking verb, has its required predicate nominative [“right”].

Now, having distinguished between the two possible meanings of “is,” let’s get back to the sentence we used as our incorrect usage:

The reason is because I do not like ETFs.

What this sentence is actually saying is that “the reason” exists because I do not like ETFs (instead of the reason is that I do not like ETFs).

And that, even after a few glasses of wine, and a lot of sunshine, just doesn’t make sense.



To M.E.:
Regardless of how many times you see it in the press or hear it on your nightly news program, “sunk” is not the past tense of “sink”; it is the past participle.

“The Graf Spee sunk off the coast of Montevideo.”

“The Graf Spee sank off the coast of Montevideo.”

The principal parts of the verb “to sink” are sink, sank, sunk. The “sunk” form is used only with an auxiliary verb:

“The Graf Spee had sunk many years earlier.”

And next time you have a question regarding an incorrect journalistic usage, please cite the article name and date and the name of the newspaper or Web site, and Ms. Picky will include it on her “Journalism Wall of Shame.” Let’s nail these guys.

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