“Once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because…”

This is the hapless son of yesterday and earlier posts. Actually the case write-up I gave the class(es) didn’t say the kid couldn’t stop using drugs, and the father, who killed him to save him from a junkie’s death, actually admitted that his son was NOT yet addicted. But the student who wrote this sentence was sympathetic to the boy, and preferred to assume, I’m sure, that he couldn’t stop—not that he just wouldn’t.

From the rest of the sentence we can see why stopping was so hard:

“Once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because he would start using them again.”

I don’t know what I can add here. Obviously the surest way to fail at quitting is to not quit, or to keep restarting.

I’m not sure how many student writers have trouble with the word “because,” but I can say with some certainty that many of my student writers do. If I asked this student what she meant, I’m pretty sure she would say she meant that the kid quit smoking dope more than once but kept going back to it. I do not think she would say that what was keeping him from quitting was not-quitting, even though that’s pretty much what her sentence says: the reason he couldn’t stop was that he kept on. She’s describing a cycle of behavior but inserting a false causality.

And that’s because she doesn’t seem to know what the word “because” actually means: it’s just a word to put between two actions. Proof of this assumption is that the facts in the case left a lot of room for speculation, a lot of clues. For instance, plenty of adolescents discover that their parents’ priorities are no longer their own priorities, and in this case the boy quit his high school varsity football team and lost interest in tossing the ball around with his (ex-pro-football-player) father; he began hanging around with kids from school instead of coming home to spend time with Dad; in defiance of school rules and probably Dad’s preferences he grew his hair long. Suspended for this dress-code infraction, instead of mending his ways he accepted expulsion and began to skulk in his room. Marijuana and cheap wine seem to be part of this effort to find his own way, or at least evade the path he suddenly didn’t want to tread any longer.

If he was rebelling against his father’s expectations of him, smoking dope may have been THE thing he knew would make his father crazy. In that case, Dad’s efforts to “help” him would have confirmed him in his refusal to cooperate.

Or, of course, at 17 he may have suddenly felt lost in a world he wasn’t sure he could deal with, and wanted to be left alone for awhile to sort things out.

ANY of these might have been a “because”: “Once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because he wasn’t ready to deal with his confusion.” Or “once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because giving in to his father and the school would have been too embarrassing.” Or “once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because he liked the feeling of not having to care about anything.” Or “once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because for the first time in his life he felt really cool.”

By sticking a “because” where  it made no sense, my student prevented herself from actually thinking about what might have been going on in that boy’s mind. Instead, she gives us a sentence that dooms itself to circularity and the whole essay to superficiality.

That’s why these errors, or “horrors,” or what-you-may-call-ems, matter: because rather than inviting thought they short-circuit it; because rather than opening new vistas of intellectual possibility, they pull the blinds and leave the writer in a situation like the boy’s in this case…safe and numb in the dark, getting through the day (or the assignment) but going nowhere.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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