Because reasons.

I suddenly noticed recently that there’s an interesting construction developing right under my nose. In fact, I’ve used it, without thinking “This sounds like a new syntactical development.” (Like you do.)

“I can’t because reasons.”

“I want this because reasons.”

This is actually two developments in one. The first one is “because of reasons”, from Pardon Me by Three Word Phrase [NSFW]. This is more of a semantic development: you can use “reasons” as a substitute for explaining your reasoning, either because it’s obvious or because maybe it’s complicated or you don’t want to explain (as in the comic).

The second is a syntactic development: you can place a noun phrase after “because”, sans “of”. There aren’t any formal, detailed analyses of this that I can find, but a few other people have made an attempt to describe it linguistically. These descriptions are fairly inadequate, so I decided to break out the big guns: The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston and Pullum), hereinafter CGEL.

Edit: The phrase has been discussed on Language Log (thank you Lauren, for finding this when I missed it!), but a detailed analysis wasn’t offered, and the phrase seems to have several distinct origins and to be catching on in Swedish as well. All the more reason to think about it more clearly.

First: What is because? According to to CGEL, sequences such as because of are traditionally considered either complex prepositions or an adverb plus a preposition (p.616). CGEL finds this analysis to be inadequate and largely due to the restrictive definition of prepositions as items taking a noun phrase as a complement. Therefore they set the stage to consider because a preposition. It is then considered (p.624) as participating in fossilized Prep + Prep sequences, much like out of. Because the of can drop, these are not considered complex:

  1. They came out of the building.
  2. They came out.
  3. *They came out of.

The behavior of because is similar, except that it can take content clauses, and the complement is obligatory:

  1. We couldn’t go because of the rain.
  2. We couldn’t go because it was raining.
  3. *We couldn’t go because.

This is further elucidated on p.639 where because is listed as a preposition that selects of as its head, and has an obligatory complement. On p. 731, because is described as “taking finite clauses as complement” (#2 in the example set above). It’s considered versatile and can occur as a subject or predicate as well as adjunct when taking a clause:

  1. Because some body parts have already been turned into commodities…
  2. The reason I didn’t call you was because the phone was out of order.

My 10th-grade English teacher would have a fit about the last one (“The reason … is because is redundant!”) but we’re being descriptive linguists here. CGEL does note that in formal style, that is preferred in #2 (and the fact that in #1). A finite clause, by the way, is one in which the verb appears in a primary form (present or preterite tense, or irrealis). A content clause is a finite subordinate clause that is not relative or comparative. (p.950)

On p. 774, because in a question is illustrated (as an ‘adjunct of reason’):

  1. Are you nearly ready, because the bus leaves in ten minutes?

This sounds odd to me, but nevertheless, “the bus leaves in ten minutes” is a straightforward finite clause, as expected.

Later, on p.971, because is noted to govern “non-expandable” content clauses, which can’t take an explicit subordinator such as “that”.

This is all the non-incidental mentions of because in CGEL.

Essentially, it seems that because is becoming a preposition on its own, without of, one that can take either noun phrases or clauses.

  1. We couldn’t go because of the rain.
  2. We couldn’t go because of rain.
  3. ?We couldn’t go because the rain.
  4. We couldn’t go because rain.
  5. We couldn’t go because it was raining.
  6. ?We couldn’t go because raining.

The first, second, and fifth examples here are standard English. #4, the new usage, sounds completely okay to me. #3 is questionable. It seems like proper nouns or bare noun phrases are preferred:

  1. I can’t because reasons.
  2. *I can’t because the reasons.
  3. I can’t because Skyrim.
  4. ?I can’t because pregnant.

#3 is from the links I found, and #4 is a made-up example based on results from a search of “I can’t because *” on Google (note: damn you Google, I want proper * search behavior back). I would regard #2 as ungrammatical (hence *) — an NP = Det + N is not very good, although #3 in the first set is only questionable, while #2 here is bad. (Perhaps ‘the rain’ is more common than ‘the reasons’?) I’m surprised that I find #4 only questionable, since adjectives are not really part of the usage I’ve noticed. But I wouldn’t be too surprised if I offered a friend a drink and she said “I can’t, because pregnant.” Is this adjectival, or a contraction of “I’m pregnant”? Are clauses sans verb also acceptable then? This question is raised in #6 above, and continued:

  1. ?I can’t because unavailable.
  2. *I can’t because unavailable here.

#1 seems highly questionable, and #2 downright wrong. But “I can’t because raining” doesn’t sound much more odd than “I can’t because rain.”

My intuitions on this don’t match the ones provided by some of the others who have written. For example, I find “I can’t come out tonight because too much homework” fine, but agree on “difficult homework”; “I can’t come out tonight because busyness” sounds terrible to me, while “I can’t come out tonight because busy” is merely questionable. The Language Log comments offer other possibilities: interjections (because fuck you), alternations with “Because (why)”, adverbs (because seriously). Are all these part of the same pattern, or is there more than one pattern? Are they elisions or is because becoming less restricted?

To use one Internet meme on another: my new project is COLLECT ALL THE DATA.

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