More thoughts on since vs. because. Or, Since you read my previous post…

In my previous post I talked about the use of since and because and how they are different or same. This piece is more a hangover due to the previous post. After having thought and talked about the grammar side of since vs. because, I still felt the previous post was not complete. While I talked more about the perfect tenses, object of since, and other things, I also realized that this is not how I approached the conundrum while editing. So do many seasoned editors. And sometimes even when the customer’s specification was not to change since to because, I did make a change; it’s more of a feel than of the grammar. Then there was a reflection on this question: Why did I change? Was it out of habit? Perhaps not, because there were many instances where since was not disturbed. In fact, to me the word since has more charm than because. Try it out yourself: write sentences with since and because as conjunctions and read the sentences aloud. The sentence with since is music to ears, isn’t it? It is, or it may not. Whatever be the preference, is there any logic behind the choice of these words? It looks like there is. Google helped and here is my understanding on this dubious pair of words.

As you started digging deeper, you realize that there is this feeble as to mean the same thing and to add to the confusion. So it is not just the choice between two words now, but between three words. The consolation comes from the fact that the choice of as is not as complex as the other two words.

One of the criteria to choose between the three, according to the online Cambridge dictionary, is how formal your writing is. Because is less formal than the other two. Personally, as sounds more colloquial, let alone more formal.

Another criterion is the writer’s emphasis. As conjunctions these words provide reason-clauses. There is an action, and there is a reason. The choice of the word is based on which is emphasized, the main clause or the subordinating reason-clause. If the emphasis is on the reason, use a because-clause. If the emphasis is on the action, use since or as.

A caveat. because and because of are not the same. Because, as we have talked so frequently now, is a conjunction; because of is a prepositional phrase. Bearing the risk of being naive, let me state that we cannot replace because with since in the latter case.

There is another phrase that creates nuisance to editors: due to. But let that be reserved for a later occasion.

What is your take? Do you have any peeves on the choice between these words?

Since when since has been replaced by because? Or, to sin(ce) or not to sin(ce)?

The moment you started typing since, Google will suggest since vs because. Such is the power of this pair of words. The confusion stems from the fact that since and because are interchangeable, though not always. In fact, there is no confusion most of the times. Perhaps people were asked to clarify when there was ambiguity. As in most of the stories, these exceptions became the norm and changing since to because to express reasoning was always expected.
Now, why is the confusion? Because since can be an adverb, preposition, or a conjunction; because is only a conjunction. As you can see, as the only place where these two cross their lives is as conjunctions. So in order to understand the “rule”, let’s rule out the other two possibilities: being an adverb or preposition. Let’s consider the following sentences:

It has been raining incessantly since Diwali eve.

The rain started on Diwali eve and we haven’t stepped out of home since.

You can easily find that since is a preposition in the first sentence; there is an object of preposition (Diwali eve). Since as an adverb will not have one. You may also have noted that the object of the preposition since is the answer to the question “when”? Some more examples with since as a preposition:

We haven’t partied since your birthday party. (Since when? Since your birthday party)

The industry has continuously reinvented itself since the market slump. (Since when? Since the market slump)

Since as an adverb:

The original building has long since (= long before now) been demolished. (from Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)

There is no “since when?” here.

A point worthy of note is, since is associated with perfect tense in both these cases. Have you noticed it: has been raining, haven’t stepped out, haven’t partied, has reinvented, has been demolished?

So with these constructions you need two points of time, to denote a duration. The temporal references can both be in the past or beginning in the past extending till the present time.

Now to the central point of our discussion: since as a conjunction, a subordinating conjunction at that. By definition, then, since introduces a subordinate clause. The moment you see a subordinate clause following since you know that the function is as a conjunction, not otherwise. Once again, let’s consider a pair of sentences with since  as a conjunction to understand when it can mean because:

Since it rained on Diwali eve, this Diwali was far less enthusiastic, at least on the Diwali day. However, people have celebrated with fervour since it stopped raining.

Noting that the first sentence doesn’t have a perfect/simple present tense combination, you can conclude that since in the first case reasons why Diwali was far less enthusiastic. By a similar logic, since in the second sentence denotes a point of time in the past. But the conclusion one can drawn from the second sentence is not as clear as the first one. The context helps then.

Some points to ponder when you come across since in a sentence:

  1. If what follows since is a phrase and if an answer to the question “Since when?” exists, then since is a preposition. The answer is the object of the preposition.
  2. If what follows since is not a clause and there is no answer to the question “Since when?”, since is an adverb.
  3. If the since-clause is written in perfect tense and answers the question “Since when?”, since is a conjunction denoting a point of time.
  4. If the since-clause is written in a tense other than perfect tense and answers the question “Why?”, since is a conjunction and can be safely replaced with because.
  5. If the since-clause is written in perfect tense and answers both questions “Since when?” and “Why?”, god save you. Look for some clue from the context.

And there are myths

Recently I received a WhatsApp message, a picture message with Vivekananda, the great saint in his arms-crossed pose. Unusually, this time it was about English grammar. I was rather surprised. Many of his quotations are on meditation, Hinduism, devotion, and the like. Vivekananda on grammar? Hmm, interesting. But I immediately realized that a similar quotation was attributed to C.N.Annadurai, erstwhile chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Okay, the story goes that Vivekananda was asked by an Englishman whether the former can create a sentence with three because‘s consecutively, to which Vivekananda replied:

No sentence can begin with because because because is a conjunction.

This is a slightly varied version to what is attributed to C.N.Annadurai:

No sentence can end with because because because is a conjunction.

I’ve two problems here: (1) the Indian mentality to attach everything intellectual to anyone we want to celebrate (the atrocious American-flag-flying-half-mast tweets and the UN observing World Students’ Day, both in honour of Dr. A.P.J.Abdul Kalam) and (2) the grammatical perspective to the above two variations of three because‘s.

I reserve my comments on the first one to a different forum and talk about the second. I disagree with both the versions. There are grammar rules and there are myths. And myths outnumber rules.

Firstly, to answer “Vivekananda”, a sentence can begin with becauseBecause is a conjunction doesn’t mean that it cannot begin a sentence. Anyone with a basic understanding of sentence formation will immediately tell you that one of the basic sentence structures is a dependent clause followed by an independent clause. As a subordinating conjunction, because heads dependent clauses. So,

Because of the WhatsApp message, I’m motivated to write this post.

Next, to answer Annadurai, a sentence can end with because. Again, the principle argument would be that because is a conjunction and cannot hang around at the end of the sentence without anything to connect. Oh, wait. Consider this:

It’s a myth that no sentence can end with because.

As a copy editor, I would rather write

It’s a myth that no sentence can end with because.

The subtle difference is that in the latter example, the word is not used semantically, but as a word. Foul game, you may cry. But in the original two sentences (yes, those by “Vivekananda” and Annadurai), two of the three instances are because as a word; I just used it once.

Sorry “Vivekanandas” and “Annadurais” out there, don’t spread myth. You may be booked by the Cyber Crime department.

PS: I’m sure you noticed that I broke in this post another myth that and and but cannot begin sentences. Pat yourself on the back.

An approach to “approach to”

Editing is interesting.

Sometimes the discussions around an edit become much more interesting.

And there is always a duel between editors who want to think language can be kept simple and editors who think otherwise.

Many a times, there is no result.

Recently there was a discussion on the phrase following the word “approach.” One of the editors was unsure about editing the phrase “approach to relieving pain.” She initially thought the verb following the infinitive marker should be in the base form, thus inclined to edit the phrase as “approach to relieve pain.” However, the conscious copy editor in her whispered in her ears to check with someone. So she did. After much deliberation, the phrase was left unedited. Rightly so.
There is a belief, perhaps seen more among the learners of English as a second language, that whenever a verb follows the word “to,” the latter is an infinitive marker. Not always the case, because “to” has other functions as a preposition and as an adverb (yes, as an adverb). While it is true that the “to” before a verb form is an infinitive marker, sometimes it functions as a preposition. When “to” functions as a preposition, what follows need not be a verb but a noun (or a gerund). The tricky part is that sometimes identifying the function of “to” is an intricate task.

Let’s focus on the phrase in hand – “approach to.”

The phrase “approach to” is shown in boldface as “approach to (sth)” in my Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (8th edition). A phrase in boldface here indicates that it is a standard phrase in English; “sth” is an abbreviation for “something,” which can be understood as “substitute here a noun or its equivalent.”

(There are two other usage points with the structure “approach to” as in “an approximation to something” or “denoting a road, sea passage, or other way leading to a place.” Even though in these cases a noun follows the structure, our discussion centers around the meaning “a way of dealing with a situation or problem.”)

Let’s consider three examples:

  1. We need a whole new approach to the job.
  2. The following gives an example of the WHO approach to treating chronic pain with medications.
  3. The researchers describe a new approach to promote regeneration of heart tissue.

 The cake walk

The first example – “We need a whole new approach to the job” – meets all the criteria for being a perfect candidate for “approach to (sth)” syntax: a standard phrase with defined meaning,”to” as preposition, and “the job” as the object of the preposition. No problems for the editor here.

 Walking down the catwalk

The second example – “The following gives an example of the WHO approach to treating chronic pain with medications” – is like walking down the catwalk. The author of this sentence clearly understands the structure and substituted the gerund form as the object of the preposition. All the copy editor needs to have is an eye for such constructions and be grateful to the author – and English language in general – by not editing the gerund form to its infinitive form. The situation, or problem, here is “treating chronic pain with medications,” not “treat chronic pain with medications.” So, the construction is “approach to treating chronic pain with medications.” Perfect. Dear copy editor, don’t fiddle with this sentence.

Walking on egg shells

The third example – “The researchers describe a new approach to promote regeneration of heart tissue” – is tricky. By the standard construction, it is tempting to edit the phrase “approach to promote” as “approach to promoting,” changing the verb to its gerund form, making it the object of the preposition. Another possibility is to see the phrase “to promote sth” denoting purpose, with “to” as the infinitive; perhaps unanswering the question “approach to what?” This can be checked by juxtaposing the phrase as

To promote regeneration of heart tissue, the researches describe a new approach.”

Such juxtaposition may not work with sentence like

The approach to relieve back pain is a combination of medications and physical exercise.

The sentence doesn’t look standard, so you edit as

The approach to relieving back pain is a combination of medications and physical exercise.

Now what?

Now that the copy editor knows about the confusion in deciding whether the phrase is the object of the preposition or an infinitive phrase, what should they do?

When what is written originally is a gerund, there should not be any problem. The author knew what they had written.

When what follows is an infinitive phrase, the copy editor can try and juxtapose the phrase as introductory and check if it still makes sense. If yes, leave it; otherwise, be wise.

Mr Venn, tell me more

The last post explained how restrictive (or defining) relative clauses create a proper subset of a set. In other words, these clauses classify the noun into two: one that is governed by the relative clause definition; the other that is not.

But an important observation here is, the subsets are not always proper, which means the relative clause can introduce a definition, but the resultant subset is still the original set – an improper subset. What could be the corresponding scenario for a relative clause sentence? Consider the following example:

The Indian cricket team that played the tri-nation series against Australia and England is diametrically opposite in the competence to the Indian cricket team that played the World Cup.

Yeah, obviously the two sets are the same (the same Indian cricket team that played the two tournaments). (Okay, there were a couple of player changes, but that is not the point here, you know.) It was about the quality of the team. It was about the zeal with which the team played the World Cup, bowling out 7 teams successively before bowing out to Australia – after the humiliating defeats in the Test matches against the Aussies and the tri-nation series against the Aussies and England.

The relative clause “that played the tri-nation series against Australia and England” does not separate the Indian cricket team into two. It relates to two differing qualities of the same team. Talking further about the tournament,

It’s Dhoni who made all the difference in the dressing room

There are no two Dhonis – one who made the difference and one who did not. The relative clause emphasizes the captaincy of the same person, Dhoni.

Mr Venn, will you help us learn some English?

All right, now I got your question – rather, questions. Who’s Mr Venn? Why would he come to teach English? What is he teaching now? Before you inundate me with all those questions, let me tell you about him.

John Venn, FRS, FSA (4 August 1834 – 4 April 1923) was an English logician and philosopher noted for introducing the Venn diagram, used in the fields of set theory, probability, logic, statistics, and computer science

That was the first few lines, lazily quoted from Wikipedia, where you can learn more about him. Okay, he brought in Venn diagrams, so what?

Understanding set language became better. People were able to “see” sets as physical objects. They were able to easily prove various properties of set operations – one of the basics being defining a subset.  Set A is said to be a subset of B if all elements of A are also elements of B. This is checking that every element of A is an element of B. However, with a Venn diagram, this became uber-cool (see Figure 1).

a in b
Fig. 1 A is a proper subset of B

There is a possibility of a subset being identical to another set, which we call an improper subset; if it behaves, we call it proper. By the way, whenever we talk about a set, the universal set comes into existence, often without express request. If you draw only one circle on a piece of paper to represent a set, say, of even numbers, then the universal set is the white space around the set (the set of all natural numbers). Universal set is all inclusive. It’s like Lord Krishna’s wide open mouth, where you can see everything in the universe.

So you have a set, or a universal set. Define a criterion and you have shelved out a subset. Come again. Define a criterion and you have shelved out a proper subset. You divide the original set into two: one that qualifies and one that does not.

This criterion is called, in English, relative clauses – to be accurate, restrictive relative clauses. Restrictive relative clauses are clauses that begin with a relative pronoun (such as who, that, where, and when) and defines a noun. By defining, these clauses create a proper subset of the noun clauses. Let’s see an example.

If B is the set of all cars, A may be defined as the cars that have a broken windshield.

Mathematically, the clause “that have a broken windshield” is a defining criterion for the subset. Looking through the grammar lens, it is a relative clause because it begins with “that”, a relative pronoun.

With the risk of being redundant, defining a proper subset is nothing but writing down a restrictive (defining) relative clause. Understanding one helps us understand the other.

Also noteworthy is the fact that these restrictive relative clauses create a proper subset. So, aren’t there restrictive relative clauses that create an improper subset of a set. In other words, can we write down a criterion that will not create a proper subset, but becomes the same as the original set? The answer is we can, and to know further I’m going to request you to wait till the next post.

Meanwhile, if you love math, practise restrictive relative clauses with the help of Mr. Venn; if you love English, get to know Mr. Venn through grammar.

A Valentine’s Day and an Antecedent Accident

Feb 14, 2008. To say it was a Valentine’s day is being redundant. It was when many of my colleagues and I were in our early and mid-20s, which made that V-day all the more special. We worked for an organization that believed fun in workplace. So someone proposed the idea of celebrating Valentine’s day. I was part of fun committee, and to give you a heads up, the members in the fun committee were extremists and eccentrics.

After a lot of brainstorming, we decided to organize a competition. The office had three floors. The contest would see which floor was decorated best for the V-day. The CEO would be among the jury.

Our floor housed copy editors and project managers. On the D-day, the excitement was visible. The desktops sported a romantic look, instead of the custom official desktop picture – there was a big heart with the words “Happy valentine’s day” written over it. The screensaver was the picture of a bunch of roses, again with a heart, beating. The color theme was apparent. Fruit bowls were placed at strategic locations. There were apples and grapes. The room freshener was strawberry. (Or was it jasmine?) The floor was to be half-lit when the jury arrived. Around their wrists, men wore jasmine flower bands. (Recall the “minor kunjus”of 1980s Tamil films, to visualize.) Women wore red roses. If my memory is strong, there was some romantic music too in the background. Overall, a perfect setting for romance.

All set and done. We looked at each other. There was big grin on every face. The moment arrived. There was knock at the door. The floor was half-lit and the door opened. The jury along with onlookers from the other two floors entered and they were completely floored. The CEO cried, “I’m missing my wife.” And then it happened – the moment of utter awkwardness, the moment that bowled over everyone, the moment I want to rewrite if can be. I shouted back, “Me too!” There was silence. Silence that was deafening. The CEO said, “What, you are missing my wife?” kept a straight face for a moment, then burst into a guffaw. Everyone joined him in a thunderous laughter, with me embarrassingly.

That was the last time I could remember I made an antecedent error.