Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A look inside the tortured soul of a grammarian

My heart weeps. The bitterness of betrayal sits acrid in my throat. I have begun to suspect one of my favorite phrases to be...grammatically incorrect!

Just because ... doesn't mean....
I say this all the time. "Just because I'm beautiful doesn't mean I'm stupid," (one phrase I've sadly never had the opportunity to use) is one example of how a logical argument can be completely derailed by this construction. In this sentence (ignoring the "just" because it's unnecessary to the basic meaning), "because I'm beautiful" is a clause, meaning it contains a subject and verb that could stand alone as a sentence: "I'm beautiful." However, because the clause also contains a conjunction ("because"), it cannot stand on its own—it is a dependent clause, meaning it must be attached to another clause.

"Doesn't mean I'm stupid" is not a clause, though. It's a compound predicate, lacking only a subject. The solution to this limitation seems simple enough: add an "it" to the beginning, and voila! You have a sentence - "It doesn't mean I'm stupid" - usable in this case as the independent clause to which our dependent clause must adhere.

"Just because I'm beautiful, it doesn't mean I'm stupid" becomes our finished product. But wait. There's still something wrong with that!

As we all know, "it" is a pronoun, and all pronouns must refer back to a noun (or phrase that acts as a noun). So what is "it" referring to in this sentence? Well, "it" could be just a general catch-all for "the general state of things," but that's really just a cop-out. Typically when you say "It doesn't mean..." you are referring directly back to a stated fact—e.g. "I am beautiful. It doesn't mean I'm stupid." Or, to put it all in one sentence, "I am beautiful, but it doesn't mean I'm stupid."

That sentence works, but that "because" in the first clause of our original example sure messes things up! While "I am beautiful" is an independent clause, "because I am beautiful" is a dependent one. It's an incomplete idea and can't be considered a stated fact. It is more a fact in progress.

So how can we use it and still have a coherent sentence? We can't. The best compromise I can come up with is "Just being beautiful doesn't mean I'm stupid," but that leaves out our beloved "just because." Or then there's "Just because I'm beautiful, I don't have to be stupid," but that leaves out the "doesn't mean." And without one or the other of those phrases, the sentence loses a good bit of its punch.

What a dilemma! What's a grammarian to do?

Apparently, I'm not alone in my pain, judging from the several discussions that turn up in a Google search for 'language "just because" "doesn't mean."' Unfortunately, no one seems to have a definitive answer for me. Ergo, I've decided the only recourse is to lock myself in the basement and write gothic poetry. Without any punctuation.

On the plus side, I've said "I'm beautiful" enough times in this post to make up for never being able to say it in real life!