linguistics and lexicography Love English

Due to general usage, this phrase is fine

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesIn his short story collection Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris begins a paragraph with this line: ‘Due to his ear and his almost maniacal sense of discipline, I always thought my father would have made an excellent musician.’ To many readers – probably an overwhelming majority – there’s nothing wrong with it. But sticklers would find fault with the opening two words.

The compound preposition due to (meaning ‘because of’) in this syntactic role is disliked by some prescriptivists. They say due must function as an adjective, which it commonly does after a linking verb. So they would accept a phrase like: ‘Our delay was due to traffic’, but not: ‘We were delayed due to traffic’. Fowler considered the latter usage ‘illiterate’ and ‘impossible’, while Eric Partridge said it was ‘not acceptable’.



These judgements, which have been inherited by some of today’s critics, may seem unnecessarily restrictive to you. They certainly do to me, and to the millions of English speakers who for centuries have ignored the ‘rule’. Writers, too: Why would Sedaris, a skilled and careful author and stylistically perhaps even a conservative one, flout a rule? He does so because it’s not a real rule at all. It’s a shibboleth of style that allows an educated in-group to criticise people unaware of the rule.

The rule’s advocates often recommend that you use owing to instead. Why owing to can be prepositional but due to cannot is taken to be axiomatic or self-evident, but it isn’t. Macmillan Dictionary’s usage note for owing to says, ‘Both owing to and due to mean “because of”. They are used in exactly the same way’. It also notes an exception, that owing to can’t be used after the verb be: ‘Their failure was due to a lack of care and attention (not: was owing to)’, but I think owing to is also fine after a linking verb.

There has definitely been a shift towards acceptance of prepositional due to: the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel went from 84% rejection in 1966 to 60% acceptance in 2001. The more recent figure shows only partial acceptance, and some authorities – including the influential Chicago Manual of Style – recommend changing to owing to.

But such advice serves to perpetuate a linguistically groundless distinction, ignored even by Queen Elizabeth II, who was quoted in the Times in 1957 saying: ‘Due to inability to market their grain, prairie farmers have for some time been faced with a serious shortage of funds to meet their immediate needs.’ Make no mistake: the usage is standard.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

5 Comments

  • I certainly would never write ‘We were delayed due to traffic’, not so much because I’m a hardliner on the subject of ‘due to’ – I’m perfectly happy with David Sedaris’s use of it – but because in that particular example it would surely be better simply to say ‘We were delayed by [the] traffic’.

    Of course, I may be being inconsistent here, but I prefer not to analyse too closely! Hasn’t it got something to do with ‘the reason … is because’ being ‘wrong’ and ‘the reason … is that’ being ‘right’?

    I’m now seventy, by the way, which I see as giving me extra authority, hoho.

  • A lot of peeves are about words/phrases being used as “the wrong part of speech”.

    This is such a common part of English usage that the peevers just show an ignorance of hows English is actually used.. I am particularly struck that anyone can still complain about nouns being used as verbs.

    And I’m 80 and even more willing to accept new usages than I was when I was younger, and fascinated by the way the whole rhythm of English has changed in my lifetime.

  • Not so much the “due to” as its “hanging” feel in “due to his … I always thought” or conflict between “his” and “I”. Still find such things disturbing in considered prose.

  • Harry: Better, perhaps – certainly simpler and more direct. But in practice we don’t always need (or get the chance) to hone our syntax to the degree we might like, and due to is a popular and available construction.

    Bev: Hear, hear! It’s striking how much hostility there is towards conversion, given how productive a process it is. If English didn’t rely on it so much it wouldn’t be nearly so robust a language. In an old Sentence first post about linguistic doom-mongering, I speculated on why people use language “as a hook on which to hang their worries about an uncertain future”: I think one reason language change disturbs people is because they see in it a reflection of genuinely disturbing changes in society. More power to you for seeing past that and finding language change unthreatening and intrinsically interesting.

    Ed: That’s fair enough. If the construction jars or is potentially ambiguous, I would prefer to reword. But I think we often pass over such usages without noticing them.

  • Oh Ed, that ambiguity argument is hopeless. English is a profoundly ambiguous language. Small example: three word noun phrases are almost always ambiguous: compare [pink [fire extinguisher]] and [[electrical fire] extinguisher]. But there could be a pink fire or an electrical extinguisher.
    It’s at its feeblest in justifying genitive apostrophes.

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