Myth Buster: Never Start a Sentence with Because
This grammar myth is, thankfully, less pervasive than some others I’ve addressed. Still, I regularly encounter folks who believe there is a general prohibition against starting a sentence with the word because. Others, who’ve never heard of this dubious rule, scratch their heads when they hear it because it seems so arbitrary.
It’s not, however. There is a reasonable explanation for the idea that a sentence beginning with because is anathema.
How a Grammar Myth Is Born
It’s a tale of laziness:
Students in Mrs. Malaise’s English class are asked to read a short story in their textbooks and answer the questions that follow. When they turn in their answers the next day, Mrs. Malaise is dismayed at the abundance of sentence fragments. They all look something like this:
Question: In Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” why did the man die?
Student’s Answer: Because he didn’t respect the power of nature.
That answer is indeed a sentence fragment.
The teacher discovers that these fragments always follow why? questions and begin with the word, because. So, she forbids students to begin their answers with that word. Miraculously, the problem is solved:
New student answer: He doesn’t respect the power of nature.
Even better student answer: The man dies because he doesn’t respect the power of nature.
And thus a grammar myth is born. Over time, this useful little trick takes on the power of universal grammatical truth. Perhaps it’s the fault of overly conscientious students who misunderstand the reason for this limited “rule.” Or maybe teachers just don’t take the time to explain. Instead of saying, “To avoid sentence fragments when answering why? questions, a little trick is to never start the sentence with the word because,” they simply say, “Don’t start sentences with because.”
Of course some of the diligent students of Mrs. Malaise go on to become teachers themselves, and since few of us ever question the rules we learned in middle school, this mythical rule spreads like an urban legend.
Why It’s Not a Rule (The Grammary Part)
Let’s be clear. The problem with the sentence Because he did not respect the power of nature isn’t that it begins with because. The problem is that it is a sentence fragment.
A group of words is a complete sentence only if: 1) it contains a subject, 2) it contains a predicate, and 3) it expresses a complete thought. This sentence fails test number three. It has a subject (he) and a predicate (did respect), but it expresses only a partial thought. Something is needed to complete it.
Incomplete thoughts occur when a writer tries to use a subordinate clause (dependent clause) as a stand-alone sentence. That’s a no-no. You can only do that with independent clauses, because they are all independent and stuff. The most common way to make a clause subordinate is to add a subordinating conjunction to it (makes sense, right?). Because is a subordinating conjunction, as is when, if, and while.
A subordinate clause is always part of a complex sentence. It requires an independent clause to complete its thought.
Incomplete: Because I don’t like grease.
Complete: Because I don’t like grease, I avoid fast food places.
Incomplete: When Weston acts goofy.
Complete: When Weston acts goofy, I flick him on the ear.
The added, italicized part of these sample sentences are independent clauses. Notice that each could stand alone as a sentence.
The problem students have with answering why? questions is not that they start with because, but that they don’t complete the thought. And they don’t complete the thought because they are answering a question, and it seems redundant to repeat information already contained in the sentence. Teachers should understand that, and take the time to explain that avoiding incomplete sentences requires them to repeat information from the question.
In normal conversation, sentence fragments are common and accepted:
Bob: Why are you such a doofus?
Ed: Because you are my role model.
Could you imagine Ed responding, “I am such a doofus because you are my role model”?
But we are teaching writing, not casual speaking, and if teachers care about students avoiding fragments, they should teach what a fragment is and how to fix it, rather than just relying on a made-up rule about because.
The Real Solution
I have a suggestion for teachers. Instead of telling kids not to start sentences with because, tell them to finish their thoughts. It would be even better to give an extensive grammar/usage lesson, like mine above, but I understand that there is not always time for that. I think a better shortcut is to insist that students finish their thoughts.
Textbook: Why did the man die?
Student: Because he didn’t respect the power of nature.
Teacher: Finish the thought: Because he didn’t respect the power of nature…what?
Student: Because he didn’t respect the power of nature, the man died.
Teacher: Bravo! You may remove the dunce cap.
Notice that a complex sentence is correct regardless of where the subordinate clause is placed. It’s equally correct, whether it comes before or after the independent clause:
Correct: The man died because he didn’t respect the power of nature.
Correct: Because he didn’t respect the power of nature, the man died.
Teachers should point that out.
Isn’t it good to know that there is one less grammar rule to worry about? Spread the word to textbook-reading, comprehension-question-answering students everywhere: Start all the sentences you want with because. Just finish your thought.
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I stumbled across your posting, whilst searching for an answer as to why my son (7) got corrected for answering a why sentence with a because fragment.
Whilst I appreciate your explanation, I feel somewhat unsatisfied. You recommend that teachers should correct students by saying “Finish the thought: Because he didn’t respect the power of nature…what?”
Frankly speaking, I believe the thought of every child and adult alike actually ends exactly with this fragment and rightly so. The human brain is very efficient in recognising redundancies in information.
So the way I explained it to my son is not by telling him to “finish the thought”, but by saying that “correct writing” allows each sentence to be taken out of context and to still make sense. Good writing as opposed to “casual writing”, which is a style used in probably 99% of the worlds written communication (email); where a sentence fragment does not pose a problem.
I’m by the way not a native English speaker.
You make a good point, Matthias. I have found my way of explaining the issue to be effective, but the approach you took with your son is excellent too. Perhaps it is a better way of explaining it. Thanks for sharing it.
I agree, by the way, that it’s common in spoken English and in informal contexts like email and social media to speak in fragments, and because fragments are particularly natural in those contexts. I have no problem with that, and though I hadn’t thought about it before, I think I agree with you about how our brains efficiently process such information. Thank you for your insightful comment. It’s caused me to rethink my approach to this topic.
And, I’m sure you’ve been told, but your grasp of written English seems well ahead of most native speakers. 🙂
Wow! Thanks for the explanation. I have been carrying around the stigma of “never use the word because” for my whole life. I was told long ago that it is “lazy,” and to use another expression instead. I have struggled to exclude this word from my writing for years. Now I see where this problem arose and that “because” is not a bad word to use in writing. I suppose that it can be over used, but that’s another story. Thanks again.
“Because” is lazy? I just don’t understand teachers sometimes. There’s no such thing as an intrinsically bad word. It’s all about context. Any word can be overused and we should learn what words we tend to use too often, but teaching someone to avoid “because” because it’s “lazy” is irresponsible. I’m glad you ended up here, John!