Monday, February 2, 2009

Since and Because

Here's a little nit that hardly ever gets picked any more. In popular parlance, since and because have become more or less interchangeable. However, they don't actually mean the same thing.

Since implies a temporal relationship between two factors. The item in the dependent since clause (or phrase -- since can be used in either) sets the moment at which the topic of the independent clause became true. It also describes an ongoing situation or event that has been roughly continuous from the moment of the since until the "present" of the main clause.

Since the day we met, I've been able to think of no other man but you.

In other words, something changed, and that change can be traced to the since moment, and that change has been constant from the moment of the since. You wouldn't write,
Because the day we met, I've been able to think of no other man but you.

Because implies a causative link between the independent and dependent clauses. The item in the dependent because clause led to the existence of the item in the independent (main) clause. Get it? Because = cause.

Because the temperature dropped below freezing, all my tomato plants died.

The temperature change led directly to the death of the tomato plants. The death of the tomato plants is a one-time event, not ongoing or evolving.

In the common tongue, people frequently say,
Since the temperature dropped below freezing, all my tomato plants died.

And loads of perfectly respectable, well-educated folks don't shudder at the horror of the botched adverb. I know, I know. Hard to believe. But there you have it. And those of us who know better -- which now includes you fine readers -- have to accept that the language changes over time.

So when is the difference between since and because relevant or irrelevant in your writing? My rule of thumb is to correct it outside the quotation marks. Inside quotation marks, the difference can be ignored unless the character would not ignore it. Lawyers, for example, with their obsessive addiction to causation and the types of links between things, understand the difference between since and because. They're trained in it. Their speech is more likely to reflect that training. So if you have a legal thriller under way, you might search your manuscript on the keyword since and fix it throughout. What other types of characters would preserve this difference?

I'm tempted to go on a mini-rant here about why precision in word choices is so crucial to good writing, but it's Monday morning, and who needs that on a Monday? None of us. So instead, I'll treat myself to a fresh cuppa and skip the rant.

January was bedlam for me this year. So glad it's February. It's lovely to have a moment to commune with the blog. :)



Ian said...

SINCE I started reading this blog, my editing skills have improved tremendously. BECAUSE you and Alicia are so wise in this, I may finally write a manuscript that an agent can stand to look at. :)

Genella deGrey said...

LOL, Ian!!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Since when has the word 'cuppa' entered the American vernacular? I'm hearing/seeing more and more Britishisms and Australianisms creeping into Amer-glish.

Here's a 'because' question: is it always preceded by a comma when it is a predicate clause instead of an opening clause? Or is that one of those movable feasts?

Jan in cooling off Melbourne

Riley Murphy said...

Because we are taught NOT to use because to begin a sentence, I think SINCE is often incorrectly substituted. My thought? If BECAUSE works, use it. Because if SINCE works, BECAUSE won’t.

You ask: What other types of characters would preserve this difference?

Why, an editor of course. But um, not too many writers have the guts, I suppose, to make that character come to life. To have a hero/heroine that eats, breaths, thinks, speaks and dreams in grammatical perfection? I’m hyperventilating just imagining the stress I’d be under trying to keep up with all the technical work (and in my case research) that would be required.:)

Edittorrent said...

Ian, your sense of humor is delightful. Ever think about writing comedy?

Jan, between my father's Irish family and one memorable summer spent in London, I managed to pick up a few bits of British slang. My Aussie friends are always good for a bit more, too. :)

As far as a comma before a predicate adverbial clause beginning with "because," I think much depends on the length of main and dependent clauses and the tone of the writing. More casual, shorter writing can support a lack of punctuation more easily than complex, formal writing.

Murphy, I have no problem whatsoever with starting a sentence with "because." And editors make wonderful villains. ;)


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
green_knight said...

Allow me to translate the previous comment:

"Since I cannot think of better ways to annoy them, I shall spam an editor's blog."

Verification: No, man! (punctuation added)

Riley Murphy said...

Be still my heart. An editor cast as a villain? Never! Well, hardly ever...of course, (me thinking...insert smoke from wood burning here) she’d probably have good reason to commit murder or mayhem I suppose, given the amount of stress she is under from anxious writers on a daily basis.:)

Edittorrent said...

I do love to hear about new books, but, well, not in the comments on my blog. (sigh)

Honestly, Murphy, editing is a pretty low-stress job. It's demanding on time and eyesight, but it's not stressful.

So probably no stress-induced murders. But mayhem? Oh, yeah. Meet me in the bar at a conference some time for further details. ;)

Riley Murphy said...