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The reason why... : Editor's Notes #196
October 15, 2015

Ours is not to reason why
--Alfred Lloyd Tennyson

You had better reason why!
--Audrey Owen

In this issue:

1. The reason why I don't
2. Tickled my funnybone
3. Interesting Web site
4. Writing prompt

1. The reason why I don't
The reason I don't write, "The reason why is," has to do with my commitment to writing sleek text that slides into the mind unhindered by awkward or unnecessary turns of phrase.

Now, go back to look at my first phrase in this article. Notice that I left out the word why. You still understood what I wrote. So why do we write the reason why?

I don't know for sure, but I suspect it has to do with the quote from The Charge of the Light Brigade that opens this issue. The phrase, "Ours is not to reason why," is firmly in our minds, and we simply repeat it without reasoning why, and in doing so, we engage in sloppy writing.

Like many words in English, reason has multiple forms. In his poem, Tennyson uses it in the infinitive (to reason). In this case, reason is a verb that means to arrive at a conclusion through discussion or careful thought. What the soldiers are not reasoning is the purpose of what they are about to do: they are not asking why.

It is possible to reach conclusions about many things through discussion or thought. Tennyson has to say what is being reasoned. It's not how to conduct the battle or where to charge or who has the right to give the order or many other possible ideas. Tennyson uses a memorable turn of phrase to tell his readers that the soldier's job is not to ask the meaning or the purpose of the fight, only to engage in the battle regardless of the consequences. His language is so memorable that I believe it has short-circuited many English-speaking brains in other circumstances.

Here's a little tip I've shared before and that bears repeating: When a word is modified by the words the or a, that word is a noun. When we say, "The reasonā€¦," we signal that we will answer the why question. In this case, why is embedded in the noun reason. To use both words is to be redundant.

The phrase the reason why is at the top of a slippery slope. I notice that the phrase often expands to the reason why is becauseā€¦

When I edit, I change sentences that follow the pattern,

The reason why the child is crying is because someone took his toy,

to the following:

The child is crying because someone took his toy.

I make the change to clear away the rubble so readers get the message clearly and directly.

Put the word why on your personal hit list for a while. Each time you want to use it, pause and ask yourself why. If you have a good reason, by all means use it. Otherwise, leave it out.


2.Tickled my funnybone
I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.


3. Interesting Web site
If you know a young writer, even a very, very young writer, you may want to pass along this link.

4. Writing prompt
Choose any familiar object (a chair, a ladder, flour, a tree, a cloud). Explore the why question. Why did it come to be? Why is it where it is now? Ask yourself what an alien would think the purpose of the object is. What other purpose could it serve? Take any ideas that appeal to you from your reflections as a starting point for a piece of writing.

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