Don’t sweat it: Due to / because of

It's good enough for the University of Kansas.

It’s good enough for the University of Kansas.

Earlier this year, I gave a presentation called “Sweat This, Not That: Real Rules vs. Grammar Myths” at the American Copy Editors Society national conference. The point of the presentation was that it’s easy for editors to get hung up on “rules” of language that are nothing more than peeves, shibboleths or outdated rules – and that wasting time and energy focusing on these can distract us from spotting and fixing more serious errors.

By now we all know (I hope) that it’s OK to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, begin sentences with conjunctions, and use the passive voice and sentence fragments judiciously. But there are other oddly persistent language “rules” that editors need not worry about.

In this post I want to talk about “due to” vs. “because of” and why there’s no reason to rack your brain trying to figure out when to use which. This is where some of you may gasp and say, “but they’re NOT interchangeable,” and a few of you might even think that this is another sign of the Decline and Fall of the English Language. To address the first, they aren’t exactly interchangeable, but they are much more flexible than certain strictures would allow, and to address the second, people have been complaining for centuries about someone or other ruining the language, and English is doing just fine.

The old rule is that “due to” has to be used only after a “to be” verb, because “due” is an adjective and must go in a spot where an adjective can go. “Because of” can be used pretty much anywhere else because “because” is an adverb.

So:

The meeting’s cancellation was due to bad weather. (“Due to” is in a predicate adjective spot.)

The meeting was canceled because of bad weather. (“Because of” modifies the verb “canceled.”)

Under this rule, “The meeting was canceled due to bad weather” is wrong, despite the fact that no one would misunderstand it. Now, even though clarity counts for something, I know that “no one would misunderstand it” is not a good argument, because there are plenty of erroneous sentences that are understandable but are also sloppy, distracting eyesores.

Let’s look at the grammar a little more closely. The interesting thing here is that the phrases “due to” and “because of” are not strictly an adjective and and adverb, respectively — they also each contain a preposition, which means they can be considered “compound prepositions” or “phrasal prepositions,” along the lines of English phrasal verbs. And prepositions are far more flexible about how they can act and where they can go — prepositional phrases can alight in adjective spots or adverb spots; they can follow nouns and begin sentences. So if we look at both of these phrases as prepositional phrases, it allows us to use them wherever a prepositional phrase is permitted. If you like “due to,” use it; if you hate it, use “because of.”

Some of the objections to “due to” are that it is “graceless” or “sounds bad.”  Any good editor knows that “it sounds bad” is itself never sufficient grounds for changing something; there must also be an identifiable error or confusing structure to warrant a change.

In his 1977 “Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage,” Theodore Bernstein wrote: “Someday due to is going to overcome the disapproval by the sheer weight of its frequent use.” I think that day is here, and I’m saying don’t sweat it anymore. You’ll find concurrence from John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun and Grammar Girl (though a bit more hedged).

One little end note: The phrase “due to the fact that” can and should usually be replaced by the far less wordy “because.”

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