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The foggy, foggy "due"

By John E. McIntyre

The Baltimore Sun

9:09 AM EST, January 9, 2013

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A reader who saw yesterday's post on compared to/compared with writes to ask about due to/because of, on which a colleague is dogmatic.

I would hazard a guess that the Dogmatic Colleague is a fan of the late John Bremner's Words on Words and its bracing certainties about language. Professor Bremner laid down the law on due to/because of: Due is an adjective, so the adjectival prepositional phrase due to must follow a form of to be so that due can refer back to a noun or pronoun. His defeat was due to carelessness is the Bremner example, with due referring back to defeat. Because of is an adverbial prepositional phrase, referring back not to a noun or pronoun but to a verb. He was defeated because of carelessness is the Bremner example of proper usage, because of referring back to defeated. Case closed. Next.

Not so fast.

Theodore Bernstein, addressing the issue in The Careful Writer, said that due to in the adverbial sense "will ultimately become thoroughly established in the language." But not yet, of course.

The Careful Writer dates from 1979, and it looks as if Mr. Bernstein had the gift of prophecy. Garner's Modern American Usage rates the adverbial due to in his Stage 4 "Ubiquitous but ..." category and remarks that the construction might well be shunned for its inelegance.

The editors at Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, poking around in the recesses of the language, discovered that in the eighteenth century due to in the sense of owing to was objectionable, not because of a problem with due but because of an objection to owing. The Bremner/Bernstein objection to due to is a twentieth-century novelty. MWDEU says flatly, "Due to is as impeccable grammatically as owing to, which is frequently recommended as a substitute for it. There never has been a grammatical ground for the objection, although the objection formulated in the early part of this [twentieth] century persists in the minds of some usage commentators."

Now, the Dogmatic Colleague is free to change due to to owing to or because of as often as he or she likes. We all have our preferences and crotchets. The important thing for an editor is to recognize and acknowledge one's own crotchets and to weigh the costs of indulging in them.

Here is why I keep flailing away at sham rules and crotchets that have been enshrined in copy editing.

I can imagine a copy editor assiduously going over a text, changing due to to because of, changing compared to to compared with, changing which to that and that to which, recasting split infinitives and "split verbs," moving however from the beginning of a clause to the middle, and all the rest. Such an editor imagines that that text has been thoroughly edited, when in fact nothing meaningful has been accomplished, and you have to wonder what the editor overlooked while expending time on inconsequentials.