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A Word, Please: The reason why is historical

July 27, 2012|By June Casagrande

In a 1974 edition of the journal College English, 70% of university teaching assistants surveyed said they marked "the reason why" as an error on students' papers.

That's a lot of red ink. The phrase "the reason why" is extremely common, especially in any writing that attempts to explain something, say, for example, a grammar column.

I use "the reason why" quite a bit, as I did a few weeks ago in the sentence, "Those are just some of the reasons why apostrophe use can seem like a minefield."

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Soon afterward, I got this email from a reader named Paul: "Isn't 'why' unnecessary there? I was under the impression that's only for the verb form of 'reason,' not the noun. Am I misinformed?"

The answer to both of Paul's questions is yes.

Yes, "why" is unnecessary there and, yes, he's misinformed. And though these answers may seem contradictory, a quick look at the history and grammar of "the reason why" shows that they're not.

"The reason why" dates back to at least 1225. Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, Lewis Carroll and George Bernard Shaw have all used it in print. But sometime around the turn of the 20th century, someone — researchers haven't found the source — looked at this construction and thought, "Wait a minute. You don't really need that 'why.' The word 'reason' can do the job all by itself. Therefore, the 'why' part should be condemned."

Indeed "reason" usually can do the job all by itself. Take the word "why" out of my sentence above and it's still perfectly grammatical and clear. That's true for almost any sentence. Compare "the reason why he came was to make friends" to "the reason he came was to make friends." Clearly, we can label that "why" as unnecessary.

A lot of people think that in grammar, there's one right answer and everything else is therefore wrong. A lot of bad information and unfortunate myths have been born of this idea — myths that can cause college students to pay for their teachers' ignorance.

"Many critics have held that 'why' is redundant in the expression 'the reason why,' as in 'The reason why he accepted the nomination is not clear,'" notes the American Heritage Dictionary. "While it is true that 'why' could be eliminated from such examples with no loss to the sense, the construction has been used by reputable English writers since the AM."

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