Wednesday, August 13, 2008

As You're Curious ... (On 'as' as 'because')

Someone asked me yesterday whether as can be used to mean because. Yup. It can.

Webster's New World College Dictionary, American Heritage's fourth edition, and all list because as one of (many) definitions of as. Also good to know ...

As, when used to mean because, is a conjunction.

Example: As you are late, I'll dock your pay.

Think of subordinating conjunctions such as because, if, though, while, since, etc. (Refresher: Remember that conjunctions join things, but subordinating conjunctions join things in such a way as to make them grammatically inequal in a sentence. That is, I like you is a complete sentence. But when we put because in front of it -- because I like you -- it ceases to be a complete sentence. By adding a word, we have subordinated our clause -- made it grammatically less than a complete sentence. More is less. That's the magic of subordinators.) But ...

As is, first and foremost, an adverb, the dictionaries say.

Remember that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or whole sentences and they answer the questions
how, when, where, and to what degree?

So in I'm just as happy at home, the word as is modifying happy in a way that expresses degree.

As can also be a pronoun.

In, We are tired, as anyone can see, the word as is pretty much an object of the verb see. It's almost like saying anyone can see it. Therefore, this as is a pronoun.

As can also be a preposition.

As a preposition, it often means (basically) like. It's pretty easy to identify because, like all prepositions, it takes an object. In He's mean as a snake, the noun phrase a snake is the object of our preposition as.

Find these distinctions less than clear?

Don't feel bad. The dictionaries themselves seem to struggle with this stuff. For example, here's an American Heritage example of as being used as an adverb: The child sang as sweetly as a nightingale.

And here's an American Heritage example of as used as a conjunction: You are as sweet as sugar.

A while back, I reported
here that linguist Geoffrey Pullum says that dictionaries are often very bad at distinguishing between adverbs and adjectives. Apparently, there are some other parts of speech they're none too clear on either (or at least not clear enough to demonstrate it better than this).

Still feel a little bad? Then consider this: The person who asked me whether as can be used to mean because said that, while studying for the GMAT, he had been taught that it was strictly forbidden.

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Digitizdat said...

It may be recognized by our dictionaries, but is it really acceptable? At what point can we consider this usage deprecated?

I mean "as you are late, I'll dock your pay" will never be spoken by an ordinate to his subordinate. I'm not saying that that usage does not occur in the real world, as it does. However, it is almost never spoken, as it sounds gaudy and archaic.

It seems to appear primarily in email.

June Casagrande said...

Acceptability raises the question: acceptable to whom? Since there's no one language boss, we can decide to follow whichever authority/ies we respect enough to make these calls (or none at all, I suppose).

I notice a lot of words that, like this flavor of "as," get more use in ink than in speech. "Idyllic" and "bucolic" come to mind. I've noticed others that have the same gaudy and archaic qualities you mentioned, but I can't think of any right now.

It's just a fact of the language that certain words and terms show up more in writing while others are spoken a lot but never written.

Stuff like that makes English fun and interesting to me!


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