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October 8th, 2008

Functionality / due to the fact / how come?

by Barbara Wallraff

Marcia Jamrog, of Lincolnville, Maine, writes: “I have a huge resistance to the now-common term ‘functionality.’ There is no usage that cannot be served by ‘function.’ Would you comment on this? It’s driving me crazy!”

Dear Marcia: I admire your impulse to try to keep things simple. Scientists invoke “Occam’s razor” -- a principle according to which the simplest possible explanation is usually the right one. Similarly, language experts tend to argue that the simplest possible word is usually best. Hence “use” instead of “utilization,” “preventive” instead of “preventative,” “require” instead of “necessitate” and so on.

Therefore “functionality” is indeed suspect. Take this sentence that recently appeared in a car review in the Kansas City Star: “I was impressed with the large interior and family-friendly functionality.” It seems to me “family-friendliness” would have done the job. Still, I have to admit that “functionality” doesn’t just mean “function” or “functions” here. The Oxford American Dictionary gives this definition, among others: “the quality of being suited to serve a purpose well; practicality: ‘I like the feel and functionality of this bakeware.’” It’s hard to think of a simpler replacement in that example.

I think you and I need to accept that “functionality” has its uses. You’re right that sometimes it’s overelaborate. But if we ever find ourselves struggling in vain to find a substitute, we might as well give in gracefully.

Michelle Kruz, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “In college I had an English teacher whom no one liked. She had told us that the phrase ‘due to the fact’ was incorrect and we could not correctly use it in the English language. I hear it frequently and likewise say it often. I tell my kids, ‘Due to the fact you didn’t put your clothes in the hamper, I didn’t wash them.’ Can you clarify whether this is correct grammar?”

Dear Michelle: Wouldn’t it be great if likable people were always right and unlikable ones were wrong? That would make it easier to know whom to believe. (Thanks for that correctly used “whom” of yours, by the way.) Your unlikable English teacher was wrong about “due to the fact” being ungrammatical, but right that it’s flawed. How? Let’s go back to Occam’s razor and simplicity. The problem with “due to the fact” is that you can almost always replace it with “because” -- as in, “Because you didn’t put your clothes in the hamper, I didn’t wash them.” That’s simpler and more straightforward, and therefore preferred.

Shari Baron, of Hessel, Mich., writes: “What is the origin of the phrase ‘How come?’ meaning ‘Why?’ Right or wrong, I use this phrase all the time. I wonder how it came about.”

Dear Shari: Your question contains the germ of its answer -- namely, the phrase “come about.” “How come” is an abbreviation of “how did (or does) it come about that ...” Although the expression in its current meaning is an Americanism that originated in the mid-19th century, Shakespeare had a character in his 1607 play “Coriolanus” ask, “Sir, how comes’t that you have holp (helped) to make this rescue?”

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

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