“Why” seems to be the hardest word

When non-native speakers are starting to learn English, they can brush past the word why fairly quickly. I guess it’s a straight translation and doesn’t cause too many problems. English for Academic Purposes involves using a collection of words and phrases to express causes, effects, reasons and results. Responses to questions of why. The standard textbook page on this topic will teach students words and phrases like:

because

consequently

due to

as a result

Students often have difficulty at this stage, and with a little digging, it’s not hard to see why. It’s because these words are used to express concepts which are unclear, easily misused and difficult to define.

Chicken Crossing the Road

Philosophical tangent

Let’s say that why is a request for a cause (C), a purpose (P), an explanation (E), or a reason (R). Here are a few examples:

1. Why did the glass break? Because I hit it with a hammer (C, E and R).

2. Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side (P, E and R).

3. Why does ice float on water? Because ice is less dense than water (C, E and R).

In these three cases, we can see that all responses seem to fit into the category of explanation and reason, whereas causes and purposes seem to be distinct.

Sure, the answer to question 2 could equally be framed as because he had a desire to get to the other side. Mental states like desires sound like causes of action to me. But that’s because the question why is ambiguous: it asks for a cause or a purpose. Either one will do here. All the same, to get to the other side, phrased like that, is definitely not a cause. In a similar way, because I hit it with a hammer, or because ice is less dense than water are clearly not purposes.

Back to teaching English

The question is: Do I have to go through all of this every time I teach phrases like due to, consequently and all the rest? Is there a quicker way of getting the message across without taking the philosophical route? Or is this a slightly arduous but necessary part of understanding how to use this language? So many questions. Quite possibly dull ones. I’ll deal with them another day.

Wider implications

When I was teaching RE, I got into the habit of asking students why all the time. If they gave me an answer and I felt like making them think some more, I’d throw a quick why at them. The rationale behind it was to get them used to giving reasons for everything they thought and said. This way, they would not only pass their exams, but would also become more rationally minded, and therefore better people.

As an EAL teacher, why is a simple way to make people talk more. Since non-native speakers tend to need speaking practice, this can only be a good thing. Unless you do it too much and end up sounding like a three year-old.

Riots-break-out-in-north--007

But if why is ambiguous, we risk confusing students and, embarrassingly, ourselves. Take the question asked after the London riots of 2011. Everyone wanted to know Why did this happen? But few seemed to point out that there were two ways to take this question. One response was because the rioters were angry with society (ie. a cause). Another was to get free stuff (a purpose). And both of these qualify to count as reasons and explanations! Confusing stuff – and even more so when we consider that purposes can be phrased differently and then magically become causes (because they wanted to get free stuff).

It seems relevant to quote C. S. Lewis here: “An explanation of cause is not a justification by reason.” I’ve never seen this in Lewis’s context, but saw it in response to the riots. It was used to mean, “Just because there are explanations for why they rioted, this doesn’t mean they had a good reason for it”. If you cast your mind back, you might remember that anyone who tried to explain why the rioters rioted had to preface their view with “I’m not excusing what they did, but…” This is a prime example of how blurry our language is in this area  – there is a real danger of being misunderstood, misquoted, lynched and beaten if you give an explanation for bad behaviour. See Will Davies here for more on this.

Conclusions

1. Keep asking why.

2. Think more about how to teach the language of cause and effect.

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