Is There a Reason “the Reason Why” Is Considered Wrong?

By Mark Nichol

Many well-meaning writers and editors condemn “the reason why” and “the reason is because” for the crime of redundancy. But that stance (or, at least, part of it) is shaky. “The reason is because” has no supporters, but “the reason why,” despite also being idiomatic, is ubiquitous even among highly respected writers.

Yes, “the reason why” and “the reason is because” are redundant — guilty as charged. In place of “I want to know the reason why you took my book,” one can write “I want to know the reason (that) you took my book,” “I want to know why you took my book,” or “I want to know your reason for taking my book.”

Instead of “The reason is because I thought it was mine,” one can write, “The reason is that I thought it was mine,” “The reason is, I thought it was mine,” “I took it because I thought it was mine,” or, simply, “I thought it was mine.” (“Because I thought it was mine” is acceptable in informal usage.)

“The reason why” has been used frequently throughout the history of Modern English as well as that of Middle English — all the way back to the 1200s. (However, “the reason is because” has no such pedigree.) Only in the twentieth century did prescriptivist grammarians begin to urge writers to, whenever possible, use “the reason that” (or one of the other alternatives mentioned above).

I will continue to avoid combining reason and why in my own writing but will forgive the combination when I am editing that of others — and, of course, it is correct when reason is a verb, rather than a noun, as in “to reason why” — and I will not tolerate “the reason is because” in any form. However, I’m puzzled by why one is accepted and the other isn’t.

In “the reason why,” why is a conjunction linking the noun reason to the phrase “you took my book.” (Equivalent usage includes the phrases “the place where” and “the time when.”) But because is a conjunction, too. And though language maven Bryan A. Garner approves of “the reason why” yet condemns “the reason is because,” a sample sentence in the entry for because in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “The reason I haven’t been fired is because my boss hasn’t got round to it yet,” amuses me.

The dictionary uses the condemned redundancy in its example of usage of because. But it’s not the sentence that prompts my mirth; it’s the name of the source of the sample sentence: E. B. White, coauthor of the revered writing guide The Elements of Style.

Recommended for you: « »

19 Responses to “Is There a Reason “the Reason Why” Is Considered Wrong?”

  • Josh

    Grammatical Highgrounderon :
    I think you are being a little unfair by claiming that the use of redundancy in language is a sign of low intelligence. Remember, language is strongly rehearsed and deeply entrenched in behaviour. Therefore, phrases and idioms that are learned throughout one’s life become highly automatic, and are not necessarily used with any conscious thought. Automatic illogical behaviours are easy to miss if one is not directly focusing on them. Plus, the rules of language are generally not understood explicitly, and it is only when we learn about grammar and the forms of language that we would notice, and bother to scrutinize, these redundancies.

  • Chris

    I agree with Bob Hearn. There may be a redundancy in “the place where I grew up”, but this redundancy doesn’t make the phrase incorrect (in the sense of “ungrammatical”, at least). Similarly, there’s a redundancy in the phrase “the unmarried bachelor”, but the phrase is nevertheless grammatical.

    I think that it’s important to remember that language is arbitrary and that, try as they might, prescriptivists will never tame its arbitrariness. I myself use “the reason that” rather than “the reason why”, but only because I don’t want to argue with prescriptivists. If they don’t like the phrase “the reason why”, that’s their problem, and I don’t want it to become mine. I use “the person who” rather than “the person that” for much the same reason.

    Incidentally, in some other languages, both “the reason that” and “the reason why” would be incorrect in this context. In French, for example, the literal translation would be “the reason for which” (“la raison pour laquelle”). Again, language is arbitrary.

  • Lex

    Bob They do seem parallel. Parallel and wrong.
    I would not write ‘the place where’ because it is redundant. The correct phrase is ‘the place that’.

    The same applies to ‘the person who’ the correct usage is ‘the person that’.

  • Bob Hearn (not the Bob H above)

    Isaac Murphy, that is very convincing. However, what about “the place where I grew up”, or (from a post arguing for “reason why”) “The person who left their wet swimsuit on my books is going to pay.”?

    These all seem very parallel to me.

    For the record, “the reason why” drives me absolutely crazy. But I would like to have a really solid understanding of why it is incorrect, or correct, as the case may be. Periodically I ask Google and see what the latest bloggers have to say. I still can’t say I’m totally satisfied.

  • Isaac Murphy

    Would you say “The way how I do my job is like this.” Stupid, you say. Well, it’s the same grammatical construct. “Why” and “how” introduce a question or an adverbial phrase/clause. Reason is a noun, so a clause or phrase modifying a noun must be adjectival. Just say “I did this because …”. Be simple and don’t pad your conversation with useless words to make a garrulous sentence. Learn some grammar.

  • Tom Thomas

    The argument over use of article before ‘reason’ and present participle ‘being’ has reached nowhere. The reason being that there should be a moderator to give a conclusive opinion. Though I am none to play an expert’sthat roll, but the ‘reason being’ is a part of informal expression and the ‘that clause’ follows it is the correct way of construction sentance.

  • Contrarian

    Further to my last message, I would like to add something that may open people’s eyes (or roll them)…

    consider the following sentences:
    “explanation why this is yellow…”= “explanation for this being yellow is”
    “reason for this being yellow is” = “reason why this is yellow…”

    However, I think most people consider “the explanation why is that..” to be informal so shouldn’t the same apply to “the reason why is that..”? i.e. it is not official/formal grammar.

  • Contrarian

    Bob H> Correct me if I’m wrong but your explanation is that the “reason why” can be used when followed by an adjective clause, i.e. when the relative clause modifies “reason”. While I accept this is valid, I believe the article is questioning the placement of “why” before the actual reason.

    Compare sentence a) with sentence b)
    a) the reason why this is yellow is that it is…
    (alternatively: the reason that this is yellow is that it is )

    b) This is yellow; the reason for this is that…
    (alternatively: the reason for this being that…)

    Your explanation explains (ahem) sentence a) however it is not an explanation nor a justification for an inclusion of “why” in sentence b).

    Your explanation why (ahem)” because” is not grammatically correct, however, I can comprehend. thank you

    Again corrections are welcome..

  • Grammatical Highgrounder

    Usage of the “reason why” seems to me to suggest that the speaker is lacking in the very “reasoning” (and by virtue critical thinking) skills they claim to have employed. With a moment’s reflection, it is obvious that “the reason” can only be the answer to the question “why”; there is no “reason what” or “reason how”. Therefore, usage of the “reason why” serves as a kind of signalling device giving us a certain degree of insight into the linear reasoning skills of the speaker. Actively condemning its usage would deprive us of this tool. So, I say, reason why ahead..

  • Mike Mounier

    A variation on this theme that manages to get my goat more than any other is this:

    Even if you do that, it won’t change anything… reason being, is that there’s no difference between blablablah.

    The problem is the double use of the verb “to be”. Whenever I see it (or hear it) I have to make a conscious effort to keep from communicating my frustration to the writer 🙂 One can either say…

    Even if you do that, it won’t change anything. The reason is that there’s no difference between…

    …or if one prefers to use ‘being’ then…

    Even if you do that, it won’t change anything, reason being, there’s no difference between…

    There are other reasons this last option is poor writing, and in general this probablyb isn’t the best example, but my contention is simply the doubling of the verb by including both “is” and “being”as in the original example at the top. I notice also that I’ve been hearing it mostly in the last 10 years or so; seems to me that during the eighties and nineties I wouldn’t hear people use “is” right after “being, “.

    This is probably more something you hear in informal everyday conversation rather than see in print, but I like to think very basic rules should be observed even in informal settings. What constitutes a “very basic rule”? For me, if you hear it and it immediately jumps out at you, there’s a problem.

  • Bob H

    While acknowledging all points about the ongoing evolution of language (especially usage), and with appreciation for the importance of concise communication, let me at least present — without necessarily endorsing — a traditional grammarian’s explanation for the different receptions for “the reason why” and “the reason is because.” First, I appreciate the analysis of “why” as a conjunction. But the grammar I grew up on (“on which I grew up”?) says that “why” is a relative conjunction introducing the adjective clause modifying “reason.” Totally acceptable. On the other hand, “because” is a subordinating conjunction introducing an adverb clause (“because I thought it was mine”). There’s the violation: The opening of the sentence — “The reason is …” — is a subject followed by a linking verb that anticipates a predicate nominative, which has to function as a noun; traditionalists cannot countenance linking (in essence, equating) a noun with an adverb!

  • Trevor J Visick

    It is my contention that acceptance of the general definition of ‘why’ as ‘for what reason’strongly suggests that ‘the reason why’ translates (expands) into ‘the reason for what reason’. The rationale here escapes me and I make no apology for wanting to scream at those who perpetuate the tendency to insist on its use.

  • James Royan

    Hi Editor,

    Thanks for resolving something that was puzzling me for long. I would hear people saying `..the reason why…’ and knew it sounded wrong, but didn’t know what was the right phrase to use instead.

    With best regards,

  • Dan Dunham

    The reason why I don’t follow this ‘correction’ to good grammar is because people speak with a charm that is stripped away by such rules as stated. Also, the editor might consider the context of the written material.

    Technical material such as detailed descriptions or directions are best stripped down to only what is needed to deliver a clear and concise sentence. Whereas more chatty content such as a blog or personal letter can benefit from casual speech-like writing. Breaking the rules can seem more warm and personal than the grammar-correct style.

    The following sentence is an example of my point:
    ‘The reason is(….because) I felt you let me down’. There is an emphasis in the ellipses (which could be left out but the ‘because’ has the same effect as the ellipses, it is a pause, an emphasis.

    Dan Dunham

  • Warsaw Will

    @Mark – You shouldn’t really be surprised by Strunk – in his famous section called – “Use the active voice” he says “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.” So he didn’t exactly always practise what he preached. (Few usage gurus do!)

    I (BrE) sometimes say why, sometimes not, and in fact it is taught as standard to EFL learners. I think the “because” variation usually happens when there are quite a few words between “The reason” and the explanation – “The reason I didn’t tell you earlier is because I was stuck in a meeting”.

    Even “the reason why is …. because” has a respectable history – “The reason why all we novelists … are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion-picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely the more simple.” – P.G.Wodehouse (from Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage) – Note the long section between “reason why” and “because”.

  • Mark

    Strunk & White #17. 🙂

  • thebluebird11

    Ooooh, that was a huge no-no in my house. If my lips even looked as though they were going to make a “W” sound after I said “The reason…”, my mother was ready to pounce. When I hear people say “the reason why” or “the reason is because,” it is all I can do to hold my tongue and not correct them. That really grates on my ears, and the reason is that it was ingrained in me in utero, probably.

  • Matt Gaffney

    A language’s goal is to communicate, i.e., words + logic = information. We all understand what a speaker or writer means by the illogical phrases like “the reason why” and “the reason is because,” etc.

    Regardless of the lack of intelligence, education, or experience of the source, we can usually understand what’s meant. The more intelligent we are, the more educated we are, and the more experienced we are, the more sensitive we are to poor language skills.

    A centuries-old mistake, like “the reason why” (eight centuries) or “ain’t” (not yet three centuries), is still a mistake. There is no statute of limitations for grammar or diction errors. That’s why it’s important to distinguish between being understood, e.g., “the reason why” and “I ain’t got no money,” and speaking and writing clearly, concisely, and correctly, e.g., “That happened because . . .” and “I’m broke.”

    Writers and speakers may certainly make fools of themselves in front of their listeners and readers until the cows come home; however, good copy editors, proofreaders, speech writers, ghost writers, etc., have an ethical and professional obligation to alert their clients to possible pitfalls re grammar and diction so that their clients can make well-informed decisions about placing themselves at the mercy of merciless critics and opponents.

  • dan Erickson

    Although I don’t think I’ve ever used “the reason why,” I see no reason why there should be any fuss if I were to use “the reason why” because they’re only words.

Leave a comment: