Since You Ask …

I got into a Twitter beef the other day, yo. Don’t get the wrong idea—this wasn’t a hip-hop-style beef, with threats of bodily harm and profane insults about my opponent’s manhood, parentage, and rhyming skills. No, I got into a dustup with members of the American Copy Editors Society—ACES, for short.

It all started when ACES initiated a Twitter “chat.” A series of questions were thrown out, to be addressed by their distinguished guest, Erin Brenner (@ebrenner), or the public at large. The one that caught my attention was Q5 (that is, the fifth one): “AP [the Associated Press] used to be strict about using since only for time. Now I see since and because used interchangeably. Why?”

Mark Allen (@EditorMark) stepped up to the plate. Here’s his tweet, my response, and his response to me.

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Ooh, snap. Before I had a chance to come up with a suitable comeback, Brenner herself took her best shot: “Disagree: ‘Since he went out, I’ve been chatting.’ ‘Because he went out, I’ve been chatting.’”

She didn’t have enough characters left to write #QED, much less #micdrop.

The best thing about blogging for Lingua Franca is that I can indulge my esprit de l’escalier with leisure and impunity. So here goes. Bryan Garner writes in his Modern American Usage, “Despite the canard that [since] properly relates only to time, the causal meaning has existed continuously in the English language for more than a thousand years.” That may be an exaggeration; the OED dates it only to 1540. But there’s no doubt that it’s venerable and honorable, as seen in Shakespeare (“Since it is as it is, mend it for your own good”—Othello), Joseph Addison (Since I am engaged on this Subject, I cannot forbear mentioning a Story”), and Cleanth Brooks (“Since the normal teaching load at L.S.U. was then 12 hours, this arrangement meant that we taught three courses in addition to our editorial work.”)

The idea that there could be anything wrong with causal since (CS) is quite recent. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage doesn’t mention it, and neither does Sir Ernest Gowers’s 1965 revised edition. (For that matter, neither does Robert Burchfield’s 1996 Third Edition). The first reference to it found by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of American Usage was a 1970 comment by Roy Copperud that the idea that CS is problematic used to be current.

But some time after that, it took hold among copy editors; as the Twitter exchange demonstrates, it has not let go. As noted, the idea doesn’t have any historical validity. Does it have any stylistic validity? In a word, no. First, the common editing move of replacing since with because is bad, because the two words are very much not interchangeable. As Garner notes, “since expresses a milder sense of causation.” The OED definition accurately suggests that sense with “seeing that; inasmuch as.”

As for the confusion argument, I generally don’t find it convincing, and this case is no exception. For one thing, it is not even an issue the many times CS is used with present-tense verbs, as in the title of this post or a sentence like, “Since I’m a vegetarian, I’ll order the cottage-cheese plate.” (And note how stilted and, in fact, wrong, it would be to substitute because in either case.)

To be sure, sometimes genuine ambiguity can be ginned up. Consider my tweeps’ examples: (1) “Europe suffered greatly since Hitler invaded Poland” and (2) “Since he went out, I’ve been chatting.” The trouble with No. 1 is that while the syntax scans (barely), it doesn’t sound like something that would actually be written for either CS or temporal since (TS). A far better causal would be something like, “Europe suffered greatly as a result of Hitler’s invasion of Poland.” And temporal: “… after Hitler invaded Poland.”

No. 2 does actually work for both meanings (though I’ll quibble that people intending primarily TS would tend to start off with the word Ever). But check this out: In such a case, it’s actually good that it works both ways. It means both things. The speaker has been chatting after “he” went out, and in some measure because he went out. CS may present ambiguity, but it’s a benign and meaningful ambiguity.

First-rate lyricists understand this, as they understand a great many things about the language. So consider these song titles:

  • “Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)” (Aretha Franklin); composed by Aretha Franklin / Ted White
  • “Since I Lost My Baby” (The Temptations); composed by Smokey Robinson / Warren (Pete) Moore
  • “Since U Been Gone” (Kelly Clarkson); composed by Lukasz (Dr. Luke) Gottwald / Max Martin

The since in all clearly—and devastatingly—means both “ever since” and “inasmuch as.”

So where’s the beef?




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