Well, since you asked…

Intrepid Reader Sara of Seattle says, “I’m curious about your usage of the word ‘since’ such as in the beginning of this thread. I once had an English teacher tell me it was wrong to use it in that context. It should refer to time.” (The passage Sara is referring to was in an email I’d sent to a few friends. It started, “Since we’re friends on Facebook, you may already have seen my announcement about the fact that I’ve started a new blog.”)

Indeed, Sara, some would draw a hard line between “since,” which they say must refer only to a time lapse between the events in the two clauses, and “because,” which must refer to causation between the two. Under this rule, we would see

Since I moved to Seattle, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the farmers markets.
Because I moved to Seattle, I’ve been able to see my brother in Olympia every week.

My regular readers know that I’m a descriptive, not a prescriptive, linguist. I believe it’s typically more helpful (and definitely more interesting) to describe what is than to decree what should be. I also believe that language is pretty good at policing itself, and that “incorrect” forms—incorrect in this case meaning that they are awkward, function poorly or create confusion—will eliminate themselves through their own ineffectiveness. If something is being widely used, it’s because it works as well as it needs to. If it weren’t doing a good job of communicating meaning, it would fall out of use.

Let’s consider the question of effectiveness in this case. While the primary argument for differentiating these two is that the difference prevents ambiguity, I can’t remember a single time when I’ve heard “since” and was confused about whether the speaker was referring to time or causation. Other contextual clues usually serve to clarify which meaning the word has. Sometimes, “ever” is added to differentiate the time intention. “Ever since I moved to Seattle…” would not be confused with an expression of causation.

I’d also argue that the time/causation dichotomy is often either irrelevant, or so conflated that there is no practical difference between the two. For example, Let’s substitute “since” in the second sentence. “Since I moved to Seattle, I’ve been able to see my brother in Olympia every week.” That sentence seems to mean both that the speaker has seen her brother every week from the time she arrived, and that the visits have been made possible by her move. Presumably, the listener has other information—maybe the fact that the speaker was previously living farther away, in Walla Walla, Wenatchee, or Washougal—that illuminates the meaning of the sentence as well.

But perhaps I am ranting about nothing. I’ve checked several current published authorities on this, and none is exhibiting the pedantry I expected to find. The Webster’s New World English Grammar Handbook is silent on the matter. In its section on conjunctions, it gives a number of examples of usage errors to avoid. The since/because dichotomy is not one of them. I checked three dictionaries—the dictionary.com Unabridged based on Random House, the Oxford Dictionary of English, and the Oxford English Dictionary (the latter two are different things). All three give as one of their definitions of “since,” something like “because,” “inasmuch as,” or “for the reason that.” And get this. The OED dates this sense of the word to the 16th century. An example from 1595: “But since all humane flesh is mortall,..what auailes my sorowful grones and passions?”

So, dear Sara, I recommend that you fill your linguistically carefree days wondering not at all about “since” and “because.” May your days be filled instead with only a modicum of grones and passions of the worst kind, but a plethora of grones and passions of the best.

About Verla

Wordfreak. Linguist. WA State licensed P.I. #3377. Principal, Viera Investigations. Spanish-English interpreter. Sole proprietor, Encanto Language Services. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, PacNWer by choice. Jewelry artist, Different Drummer Designs. Owner, world’s most gigantic dachshund. Driver, world’s almost smallest car. Chocoholic. Lover of things purple.
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