Because, Affect, and Other Problematic Words

One of my ballroom teachers is at risk for osteoporosis. During her last physical, her doctor told her to walk for 30 minutes every day to strengthen her bones.

She patiently reminded him that she was a dance instructor who was already doing the equivalent of many hours of walking every day.

“But you need weight-bearing exercise to protect your bones,” he said. “Make sure you get in that 30 minutes of walking.”

She found another doctor – one who made a practice of thinking rather than just disseminating medical advice by rote.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

Success in any field – including writing – requires thinking skills. Alas, many ambitious writers don’t bother to evaluate the advice they’ve picked up over the years. My husband once had an editor who believed that because was a bad word. Every time because crept into one of his columns, she made him change it.

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with because: you see it in print all the time. So what was that editor’s problem?

We’ll never know, but I think I can reconstruct what happened. She probably had a teacher who warned the class – quite properly – that because can be a confusing word. Consider this sentence:

Don’t make friends with Carole because of the people she knows.

That sentence can be read two ways. Carole hangs around with a bad crowd, so you should avoid her. OR Carole hangs around with some desirable people, but that’s not a sufficient reason to make friends with her: something else is wrong.

Here’s another one:

It’s a mistake to take that supplement because it’s reported to have a high concentration of phylidicoids.

Should you avoid phylidicoids because they’re harmful? (Incidentally, I made that term up.) Or are phylidicoids wonderful substances that might fool you into buying a worthless supplement?

That doesn’t mean because is a bad word! You just have to word your sentences carefully. In the sentences below, it’s easier to figure out the meaning:

 Because Carole hangs around with a bad crowd, you should avoid making friends with her.

Because Carole knows some important people, you might not notice how toxic she is.

Because that supplement has a high concentration of phylidicoids, I don’t recommend it.

Even though it’s rich in phylidicoids, you shouldn’t take that supplement.

Did you notice that I didn’t use because in the last sentence? After several tries, I gave up: it just gummed up the sentence. But that doesn’t mean because is always a bad word! (Sigh.)

Let’s try one more example. This time I’m going to talk about a word that you really should avoid most of the time: affect. Why? Because (ha!) it’s ambiguous. Try this sentence:

The decision he made that morning affected his chance at the scholarship.

Was he more or less likely to win the scholarship? You can’t tell.

I used to circle affect and affected whenever they appeared on students’ essays. I would patiently explain why they were bad word choices and insist on a revision. Use harm, or weaken, or improve, or strengthen – something definite! Please! And here’s what I would get:

The decision he made that morning changed his chance at the scholarship.

Think! Think! That’s all I’m asking you to do!

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