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‘Because’ Is the New ‘Whatever’

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The emergence of a new grammatical entity signifies an elision not of words but of the orderly thought that is the precondition of orderly expression. We see a lapse into vagueness, a failure or refusal to construct any sort of argument.

A minor eruption of articles and blog posts has noted the emergence of a new grammatical entity, the “prepositional because.” That’s the label for this construction: “Let's start with the dull stuff, because pragmatism.”

That’s how one of the articles, in The Atlantic, cleverly begins. “Because,” up to now one of the popular subordinating conjunctions, here is dubbed a preposition because, well, nothing else even remotely fits.

Much discussion has ensued about the linguistic versatility of the construction. It turns out, upon examination, that “because” can be followed not just by a noun but by a verb, an adjective, or any number of parts of speech. This is taken by some to be a tribute to the vitality and creativity of modern digital communication. The Atlantic piece continues rhapsodically:

The "because-noun" form is limited only to the confines of your own imagination. It can be anything you want it to be … with people using "because" not just to explain, but also to criticize, and sensationalize, and ironize.

And so the hive mind expands and explains its understanding of the universe through such sentences as:

Skipping lunch today because sleep.

But Iowa still wants to sell eggs to California, because money.

The Sun is about to flip upside down… but don’t panic it's all going to be fine because science.

I need to talk to my cousin too. because oooh !

Each commentator on this phenomenon has a theory about how it arose and what it signifies. As is so often the case with Internet-related developments, it inspires some to unhinged claims:

When I say, for example, "The talks broke down because politics," I'm not just describing a circumstance. I'm also describing a category. I'm making grand and yet ironized claims, announcing a situation and commenting on that situation at the same time. I'm offering an explanation and rolling my eyes — and I'm able to do it with one little word. Because variety. Because Internet. Because language.

Yes, well. But maybe no.

Let’s look at some of those examples. “Skipping lunch today because sleep.” This is neither descriptive nor grand nor ironic. It’s a simple statement of fact, but with something missing, namely the verb in the second clause. It’s a shortened version of “Skipping lunch today because I need sleep.” The eye-rolling will have to wait until REM sleep begins.

“But Iowa still wants to sell eggs to California, because money.” Just insert “it wants the” between “because” and “money” and you have a perfectly ordinary declarative sentence.

We begin to suspect at this point that perhaps what is going on here is not the creation of a new mode of expression, but a mere matter of elision.

We begin to suspect at this point that perhaps what is going on here is not the creation of a new mode of expression, impossible before the dawn of digital communication, but a mere matter of elision. Something about text messaging and Twitter seems to favor elision. Could it just be all that tiring thumb action? Or the 140-character limit? Not necessarily. Brevity has always counted in certain forms of communication. Think of telegrams, which cost the sender by the word. Or certain kinds of radio talk where terseness was valued: “Sighted sub. Sank same.” And for sheer impact, you can’t beat “Nuts!”

There are, moreover, perfectly respectable rhetorical turns that utilize the omission of words. If I write “John was in love with Mary, Mary with Aethelstan,” I have committed the classical zeugma, leaving “was in love” out of the second clause to add a dash of style without loss of meaning.

But what about “The Sun is about to flip upside down… but don’t panic it's all going to be fine because science”? It’s not immediately obvious what words might be added to make conventional sense of this utterance. And as for “I need to talk to my cousin too. because oooh !” who can guess what is going on in the mind that expressed itself thus?

I suggest that in these, and in uncountable others of a similar character, what is going on is still elision. But it is an elision not of words but of the orderly thought that is the precondition of orderly expression.

It may very well be the case that the constraints of texting and tweeting provide a fertile ground for this kind of truncated typing, but I suspect that the elision of thought is the driving force, and I do so because we’ve been seeing it in other forms for many years.

Having said that word, the speaker is freed of the obligation to provide a carefully considered observation, just some approximation of the facts or the situation.

“Whatever.” When did this sulky, defensive retort first come to our attention? In the 1980s? The ’90s? I don’t know. Whatever. You see? With one word I dismiss the question and thus evade the necessity of thinking about it. As a bonus, I dismiss the questioner, too, thus establishing my superior standing as someone who cannot be trapped by your yes/no, up/down, straight-world adult mentality, man.

Or consider “like,” bane of English teachers since at least the Beat era. It’s generally agreed that it serves both as a filler, allowing the speaker time to search for le mot juste, and as an indicator of ironic distance from the topic, keeping open an escape route should he blunder into some uncoolness. Those functions could have been performed by any old word, of course — “you know” is a near substitute, often added on — but by far the more common choice is “like.” Having said that word, the speaker is freed of the obligation to provide a carefully considered observation, just some approximation of the facts or the situation. It’s a kinda-sorta kinda thing, you know? Perfectly suited to circles where close is entirely good enough for a cigar and on-the-nose will get you sidewise glances.

In each of these cases we see a lapse into vagueness, a failure or refusal or inability to construct any sort of argument or even a point. It’s just too, you know. Because whatever.

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to American.com. He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “The Words, They Are A-Changing,” “A Dream Delayed: Man’s Mission to Mars,” and “Sweat and Honor.” Mark J. Perry observes the misuse of “it’s” on the AEIdeas blog. David Skinner provides “The Story of Ain't: America and its Language.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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