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Writing Tip: July 23, 2003

Writing Tip: "The Reason Is Because" vs. "The Reason Is That"

Recently a tip subscriber wrote to ask us which of the following constructions is correct:

1. The reason we were late is because there was an accident on Interstate 26.
2. The reason we were late is that there was an accident on Interstate 26.

The correct choice is sentence 2.

"Is" is a linking verb. In most cases the subject of such a verb will be "linked" to a word that either describes the subject (an adjective) or renames it (a noun or pronoun or something functioning as a noun, such as a gerund or a noun clause). We call such words "subject complements" because they complete or "flesh out" the subject.

For example, in the sentence "She is the president," the word "president" is a subject complement (a predicate noun in this case). It renames the subject "she."

In the sentence "She is nice," the word "nice" is also a subject complement (a predicate adjective in this case). It describes the subject "she."

In a sentence with a linking verb, the subject complement will be either an adjective or a noun (or a phrase or clause that is functioning as one of these two parts of speech), but a subject complement can never be an adverb. (It is possible, of course, for an adverb to follow a linking verb, as in the sentence "She is here." But instead of complementing the subject, the adverb "here" modifies the linking verb, answering the question "Where is she?")

Now, let's consider our opening sentences:

The first sentence won't work because the subject ("reason") is being linked to a clause that functions as an adverb: "because there was an accident on Interstate 26." One trick for remembering which construction is correct is to think of the words "reason" and "because" as creating a redundancy, saying in effect "the reason is the reason."

Long-time subscribers will remember one of our earliest tips on the difference between "bad" and "badly." We avoid saying "She feels badly about his accident" because "feel" in this construction is a linking verb, just like "is" in the opening sentences of this tip. As we have noted, linking verbs most often connect subjects to nouns or adjectives (in this case, the adjective "bad," not the adverb "badly"). Thus, the correct expression is "She feels bad about his accident." (Read the full tip on "bad" and "badly" in our tip archive. It is also one of the tips in our paperback collection entitled The First Fifty Tips, available on this Web site under the link "order books."

TEST YOURSELF:

Which of these constructions are acceptable?

1. The reason for the recent increase in temperatures is the low-pressure system stalled off the coast.

2. The temperatures have increased recently because a low-pressure system is stalled off the coast.

3. The reason temperatures have increased recently is because a low-pressure system has stalled off the coast.

4. The reason temperatures have increased recently is that a low-pressure system has stalled off the coast.

ANSWERS:

1. Correct. The subject ("reason") is appropriately linked (by the linking verb "is") to the noun phrase "the low-pressure system stalled off the coast."

2. Correct. The adverb clause "because a low-pressure system is stalled off the coast" appropriately modifies the verb "have increased" (which is an action verb, not a linking verb).

3. Incorrect. In this sentence, the subject ("reason") is inappropriately linked (by the linking verb "is") to the adverb clause "because a low-pressure system has stalled off the coast."

4. Correct. The subject ("reason") is appropriately linked (by the linking verb "is") to the noun clause "that a low-pressure system has stalled off the coast."

Copyright 2003 Get It Write

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