Balance Due

A change because of usage

Some grammar battles have been fought for years, and many have been lost. (See “hopefully.”) Here’s another one over the cliff: In a cause-and-effect, or attributable, situation, “due to” should be used only as an adjective, not as a preposition.

Many obits say “she died due to a heart attack,” and many people will see nothing wrong with that. But some grammarians and what Bryan A. Garner calls “die-hard snoots” will say that usage is wrong. A noun is the cause—“a heart attack”—and so a noun must be the effect, with “due” modifying that noun. But since our obit sentence has only a verb, “died,” and not a noun like “death,” some will say that “due to” is used incorrectly.

Instead, in that usage, “due to” is acting as a preposition.

Here’s a test to see whether “due to” is being used as an adjective or a preposition: Ask yourself “What is due to a heart attack?” If you can find the noun, you’re using “due to” as an adjective. If not, it’s a preposition, or maybe something called a conjunctive adverb.

Of course, that test doesn’t work the other way. If you replace “due to” with another preposition, like “from” or “of,” it might work with and without a noun. “She died from a heart attack,” for example, is the same as “Her death was from a heart attack.”

Of course, you can always say “because of” or “owing to” and avoid the “due” issue entirely, But that has critics, too, including the strict grammarians of the nineteenth century who wanted to reserve “owing to” only to situations involving actual debt.

Some are holding the line: The Chicago Manual of Style says: “In strict traditional usage, due to should be interchangeable with attributable to {the erratic driving was due to some prescription drugs that the driver had taken}. When used adverbially, due to is often considered inferior to because of or owing to.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says: “Careful writers avoid this phrase unless due functions as an adjective, with a specific noun to modify: The shutdown was due to snow. (with shutdown as the modified noun). But not The schools were closed due to snow; make it because of snow instead. … At the start of a sentence (notably the infamous Because of an editing error), the needed phrase is nearly always because of.

But you don’t have to worry about it, because using “due to” as a preposition is so common it is nearly universally accepted as correct. Garner’s Modern American Usage lists it as Stage 4 in the Language-Change Index, the golf equivalent of a bogey or the grading equivalent of a “B.”

So give “due to” its due, due to the fact that not a lot of people knew it was wrong to start with.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , ,