Blame excuses

Where to point the finger

“Deer Creek blames fire on science experiment,” read one headline. “Arsonist blames fire on living conditions,” said another.

Some people would take umbrage with both of those sentences, asserting that the finger of blame was pointing in the wrong direction. The preposition wanted here, they would say, is “for,” not “on.”

Theodore M. Bernstein’s classic Watch Your Language has been carrying this banner for years: “Blame on always has been and remains a casualism, no matter how many people have used it carelessly,” he wrote in 1958.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, which owes a great deal to Bernstein, agrees:

Use this construction: The rescuers blamed the weather for the wreck. Do not use blame on: The rescuers blamed the wreck on the weather. Though dictionaries accept both usages, the more traditional has logic on its side: Blame the cause, never the effect.

Garner’s Modern American Usage seems to agree:

In the best usage, one blames a person; one does not, properly, blame a thing on a person—e.g., “I blame him for the fires.” (Not: I blame the fires on him.)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which, sadly, has not been updated since 1994, says the “blame on” construction is older than “blame for,” which did not appear until 1835. As so often happens, in the late 1800s someone got a bug over a presumed deterioration in grammar (see split infinitives). In this case, M-W says, in 1881 “the pseudonymous Alfred Ayers” called “blame on” “a gross of vulgarism which we sometimes hear from persons of considerable culture.” As M-W continued, “Ayers does not stop to explain why it is a vulgarism or how are such cultured persons are capable of using such a vulgarism—or even to prescribe blame for.”

The tide has been changing since the mid-20th century, and many usage authorities consider “blame on” to be standard English, “as indeed it had been all the time,” M-W says.

Using “blame on,” which accuses the outcome instead of the cause, instead of “blame for,” which points the finger at the cause, is at Stage 4 of Garner’s five-stage Language-Change Index. That means only “persons of considerable culture,” or fuddy-duddies, worry about misusing it.

Unless you’re a fuddy-duddy, or adhere to a style guide that wants you to blame something for something, you can be blameless, regardless of which way you point the finger. However, which finger you choose to point may be more to blame.

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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: , , , , ,