For word

Little word, big meaning

“For” is a handy word. As a preposition, it has many functions: Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists 20 ways it can be used. Among them is “in place of” (A-Rod played for Jeter); “in honor of” (He got the Bronze Star for valor); in search of (She is looking for an honest man), and “suitable to” (This pen is for writing).

Two uses of “for” often get people in trouble, owing to its status as a “causal” word, which is just what it sounds like: a word that implies a connection, or a link, between things.

If you say “I don’t want to go, for I am tired,” you are linking your desire to stay home with your fatigue, which is the reason you want to stay home (or so you say). In this usage, “for” is really a synonym for “because.” Remember that, for it will be important later.

Some grammarians have said that “for” should not begin a sentence or paragraph when it’s used in the sense of “since,” “because,” or “as.” Those are called “subordinating conjunctions,” meaning they connect a subordinate clause to another clause. As such, they say, the word has to be part of the same sentence as the clauses it is conjuncting.

But, as Garner’s Modern American Usage says, “for has always been proper at the beginning of an independent clause.” That’s true of many other subordinating conjunctions these days, including “but.”

The other troublesome usage is when “for” is used unintentionally in a way that makes it sound like “because.” One of the prepositional definitions of “for” is indeed “because of,” but it’s not always so intended.

In a sentence like “He was criticized for meddling at a time when East-West diplomatic relations hung in the balance,” as Theodore M. Bernstein wrote in The Careful Writer, “ for is equivalent to a because phrase, and thus seems to accept as fact what is being criticized.” In other words, it says he was meddling, when it’s really a matter of opinion.

The really dangerous usage of “for” is in crime stories, where reporters frequently write that someone was “arrested for” something, as in “he was arrested for murdering four people.” That little “causal” word “for” says the person committed the crime, not that he is accused of committing the crime.

Here’s how this backfired in one publication, which wrote of a pardon of a man who served 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit:

He was later arrested for the 1981 beating death of James Dvorak on a Brevard County beach. But DNA evidence showed he did not commit the crime, and Dillon was freed from prison in November 2008. (Emphasis added)

So, he was arrested “for” committing another crime he did not commit. Hmmm …

You can say that someone was “arrested for murder,” because, as Bernstein put it, “the murder, regardless of who committed it, presumably is a fact.” But to make the crime a verb—“arrested for murdering—can “connect the crime with the murdering,” Bernstein wrote.

You’re better off steering clear of “for” altogether in those situations. The better way of saying it is “he was arrested in connection with the murders of four people,” or “he was suspected of murdering four people.” “This may seem like a fine point,” Bernstein wrote, “but fine points can draw blood.”

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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: , , , , ,