In 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.Email this Post