Thanks to writing clearly, we’ll positively understand you.

Today’s post is the second in a very short series (of 2) covering misuses I’ve recently seen on the rise. Last time I talked about the misuse of infamous for famous. Today, it’s using “thanks to” in a negative way.

Here are a few sample constructions:

Thanks to the recent flooding, large parts of the town were uninhabitable.

The people in the camp were suffering greatly, thanks to a recent outbreak of cholera.

Why, thank you, flooding, for that gift. And thank you, cholera, for paying us a visit! While I made both of those examples up, they closely follow uses I’ve recently encountered.

Unlike infamous for famous, this isn’t strictly a problem with the meaning or definition of words, and how they’re used. It can be pointed out here that in this form, thanks to means because of or with the aid or assistance of; some sources also show due to, as a result, or as a consequence of. Those are all technically correct, and when used in conversation this probably isn’t a big deal in most situations (although you’re still likely to confuse the listener, at least for a moment, while they parse what you’ve said into what you actually meant). But this construction, thanks to, tends to carry a positive connotation. Using it in a negative sense is likely to confuse.

This is a problem of tone and of reader expectations (a very important consideration, especially in any sort of expository writing — journalism, academic essays, etc.). When you say “thanks to,” the reader will expect something positive to follow. Thanks, after all, are expressions of gratitude, or at least an acknowledgement of appreciation.

When you instead turn thanks to on its ear and follow it with a negative — with an unpleasant consequence, such as the flood or cholera in my examples — you’ve failed to fulfill reader expectations. Worse still, you’ve made most readers pause to figure out exactly what you just meant and how it aligns with what you actually put on the page.

Although negative uses of thanks to are moderately frequent — and becoming more frequent, if my unscientific observations are accurate — they’re still incorrect and problematic.

It’s possible that using thanks to in this negative sense is the result to a little bit of verbal sloppiness, or perhaps a small misunderstanding. “No thanks to,” the negative construction, as in “No thanks to a slow moving truck in front of us, we made it on time” or “The team pulled out a victory, no thanks to their error-prone third baseman.” While thanks to can stand in for because or due to in a positive sense, no thanks to can be used as a substitute for despite or notwithstanding.

It’s easy for me to believe that this kind of confusion exists. It would be very similar to the widespread shift from “couldn’t care less” to “could care less” in spoken English. Most people who think about the difference recognize that could care less is technically incorrect — but they accept it with little or no protest in everyday speech.

As with the infamous for famous mistake, this doesn’t seem to be on the grammar and usage radar as much as it should be. I’ve found only two discussions of the use of “thanks to” on web sites claiming to provide thoughtful and researched answers to English grammar questions. Neither of them is of much use.

The first writes that thanks to means simply “because of” and states explicitly “Note that this expression doesn’t show gratitude.” The irony in this questionable piece of advice (intended for non-English speakers) is that the examples which follow show clearly that gratitude is, in fact, implied in correct usage. A writer (or speaker) might not be explicitly thanking someone, but that is still the intent of the statement. The one exception in the examples offered (Thanks to the thunderstorm we have no electricity”) runs headlong into the problem this post addresses: the phrase should not be used this way, because the positive connotation of thanks to is violated by the negative that follows. If you intend for your reader to experience “because of” then those are the words you should use, not thanks to. It’s also telling that none of the exercise sentences offered there show anything but positive connotations and implied gratitude.

The second site that tackles this question is even less helpful, discussing a bizarre construction (thanks to ask any questions at the end of the presentation”) and asserting that this is common among speakers of American English. I would like to be able to say that I’ve never heard this inane construction, but I can’t. Fortunately, its use is rare. It seems to be a phrasing that some non-native English speakers adopt, and so far it’s not widely used, at least in native American English.

I hope the writers who glance at this post will be a little more careful with thanks to. Use it when you intend a positive or, at worst, a neutral meaning, and avoid implying that  thanks should be offered for a negative effect.

Now that I’ve had my say on thanks to, I’ll tack on something tangentially related to make you think. Writing this post reminded me of a conversation with others interested in language a while back, in which the discussion turned to the weirdest sentences in the English language. We were talking about strange constructions that have no equals and that don’t follow normal rules but, because they’re entrenched in common usage, they’re never questioned.

My candidate was the simple phrase “Thank you.” There is very little like it in modern spoken English. We construct very few other sentence this way, but we use this one all the time. What are some “really weird things” that you’ve noticed in everyday English? Let me know!


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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4 Responses to Thanks to writing clearly, we’ll positively understand you.

  1. Jeremiah says:

    “Moderately frequent?” 🙂

  2. atarunomiko says:

    I always just assumed that using “thanks to” with a negative was sarcasm, sort of a cousin to “no thanks to,” which also reads as slightly bitchy to me.

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