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August 31st, 2005

The reason is because / nauseous and nauseated

by Barbara Wallraff

Greta Sproul, of Brownville, Maine, writes: “I have lately become aware of more and more ‘professional talkers,’ such as radio and TV hosts, saying things like the following: ‘The reason we do that is because ...’ Please tell me that they are mistaken and should be saying ‘The reason is that ...’ Is that not correct? Have the rules changed?”

Dear Greta: They are mistaken, and the rules haven’t changed: “The reason is because” is redundant. “We do that because ...” is good English, and “The reason is that ...” is good English. But “The reason we do that is because ...” is a waste of words. Sometimes using a few words that aren’t strictly necessary for sense improves rhythm or tone -- but not here.

The habit you’re objecting to occurs in speech (though of course “the reason is because” is bad form in writing too). Generally, I’m readier to forgive lapses in speech than in writing. We can’t go back and change the beginning of the sentence that’s coming out of our mouth, the way we can change something we’ve written. But training ourselves not to say “the reason is because” is just a matter of paying attention to what we’re saying. This is good to do in any case, and particularly good for someone who is what you call a professional talker. (People who earn their living by talking are supposed to be skilled at it!) Once we’ve said “reason,” all we need to remember is to follow it up with “that.” And if we’ve said both “reason” and “that,” as in your first example (“The reason we do that ...”), then we can just omit the second “that”: “The reason we do that is we’re not paying attention.”

Suzanne M. Reichow, of Flat Rock, Mich., writes: “My daughter will say ‘I feel nauseous,’ but I think it is more appropriate to say ‘I feel nauseated.’ Which is correct?”

Dear Suzanne: This is a fine point of the language that is almost like a secret handshake: It makes an impression on the people who know about it, though not everyone does. Usage experts who care about what’s traditionally correct agree with you that “nauseated” means “sick to one’s stomach.” And traditionally, “nauseous” means “sickening” -- as in, “The leftovers at the back of the refrigerator were nauseous.”

The only problem is, almost everyone who uses “nauseous” nowadays uses it to mean “sick,” not “sickening.” In fact, the evidence in my news databases suggests that “nauseous” is used more often than “nauseating” in the sense of “sick,” and it’s hardly ever used in the sense of “sickening.” Dictionaries tend to give both meanings for “nauseous.”

As for me, honestly? I’ve just about given up on both words. In a perfect world, I’d always feel well and my refrigerator would be stocked with nothing but fresh, appetizing goodies. But if I can’t have that, then I vote for “I feel sick to my stomach” and “Those leftovers look disgusting.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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