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I work at a middle school in South Korea.

One of the questions on the recent 2nd grade mid-term exam was "Why do people read books?".

There are over 300 students in this year, so there were plenty of different answers.

One of the answers was "Because people read books to get information."

I believe it's wrong, but I want to explain to my students why.

If anyone could explain the grammar, I would be very grateful.

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Well, as is the answer would become tautological: Why do people do X? Because people do X to do Y. –  simchona May 15 '12 at 2:05
Because it is wrong in the way it expresses an answer to a question. –  Paul Richter May 15 '12 at 4:22
It seems to me that they have inappropriately combined two possible valid answers into a single invalid answer: "[People read books] because books provide information" and "People read books to get information" –  Jim May 15 '12 at 5:05
No, it isn't wrong. –  Kris May 15 '12 at 5:17
One thing that's not clear to me - you mention "middle school" and "second grade" but these mean different things in different countries. In the USA "second grade" means age 7, but "middle school" means ages 12-14. What are the ages of the students? –  Mark Beadles May 15 '12 at 12:16
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8 Answers

"Because people read books to get information" is not a complete sentence. It is a subordinate (or dependent) clause without its main clause.

The mistake is answering a "Why?" question by starting with "Because". Although that's common in informal spoken language, it's not proper in more formal written language. You need to include a main clause, something like:

People read books because they want to get information

EDIT: or even just leave off the "because" - what remains is a perfectly fluent answer:

People read books to get information

...where "People read books" is the main clause, in this case a restatement of the question.

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This isn't the reason that the answer doesn't work. Native speakers commonly start an answer to a "Why" question with "Because". But the specific answer here doesn't make logical sense. –  Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 4:02
You missed the real point. –  Kris May 15 '12 at 4:42
@NeilCoffey Sure, native speakers start oral responses with a "because", but at least in the US we are expected to use complete sentences in written schoolwork. The questioner specifically asked about the grammar. Just leave off the "because" and what is left is a perfectly fine answer! –  Mark Beadles May 15 '12 at 12:23
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It is common to answer a "Why...?" question with "Because..." or indeed another phrase that isn't (overtly) a full sentence.

However, the answer then implies the entire proposition being questioned from the original question.

So e.g. in the following sequence:

"Why do my plants die?"

"Because you don't water them."

the answer implies: "Your plants die because you don't water them".

So in your sequence, the answer would imply:

"People read books because people read books to get information."

Now, the answer is not ungrammatical and could potentially just about express what the speaker really intended to say (e.g. they may have meant "People generally read books because they see other people reading books to get information").

However, it is pragmatically odd and unlikely to express the intended meaning. They probably intended simply the meaning of "People read books to get information". In which case, the appropriate sequence would simply be:

"Why do people read books?"

"To get information."

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Entirely agree. Does that make it 'wrong', though? The OP's Q. was 'Why is this wrong?' –  Kris May 15 '12 at 5:25
Well, these are the facts about the grammaticality and pragmatics of the sentence. It's up to the examiner to invent the mark scheme based on those facts. And if you can't easily decide what that mark scheme should be, that could be God's way of telling you that your test is a bit silly... –  Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 5:32
...remember that if on reflection you decide that one of your questions is a bit duff, you can always decide to just discount that question. This regularly happens in real-life national exams-- it's nothing to be ashamed of. –  Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 5:35
The exam question is innocent enough as it is. –  Kris May 15 '12 at 5:48
if the answer must start with "because", it would be "because that's how they get information". –  SF. May 15 '12 at 13:01
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Those who argue that the answer is wrong are completely carried away by their presumptive logic.

It is grammatically correct. It is also semantically proper.

It differs in its implication from what is 'expected' or presumed the 'correct answer' (textbook answer).

It means 1. people read books because others do so. 2. The others (probably) do so to get information.

One may not agree with the hypothesis, but that doesn't make the answer wrong in any way.

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The question is: "Why do people read books?" The answer given is: "Because people read books to get information." If that answered the question, the following sentence would be true: "People read books because people read books to get information."


"Why should I trust you?"

  • "Because I'm honest."
  • "You should trust me because I'm honest."
  • "Because I'm honest, you should trust me."

All three of these are perfectly acceptable answers. The last two are complete thoughts that contain within them the answer to the question. The first is a sentence fragment, but is acceptable in spoken English because it contains only the answer, essentially completing the question.

But look at: "Because people read books to get information."

It's not a complete thought. It's a fragment. And it doesn't meet the informal spoken exception of giving just the answer to the question. So essentially, it's a sentence fragment that doesn't conform to any informal spoken English pattern that allows them.

A native English speaker would likely see it as disfluent.

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+1 (for disfluent, and for differentiating between the fragment by itself, and the fragment as an answer to a preceding question). –  J.R. May 15 '12 at 9:14
I wonder, did the instructions for the test say to answer using complete sentences? (I know at my children's high school, that is often the case.) Then, besides the reasons David gave, it would be a wrong answer in the context of the test instructions. (Simply removing the "Because" would make it a complete sentence.) –  JLG May 15 '12 at 12:31
The OP doesn't mention this condition. For what it's worth, I don't quite see what the raison d'être would be for requiring "full sentences"-- if you're trying to teach people English, why teach them to answer questions in an unnatural way? –  Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 14:27
@Neil Coffey, I guess to prove they are capable of writing a complete sentence?? –  JLG May 15 '12 at 16:17
@JLG Dunno... seems a bit of a stupid and uninteresting way of doing so if that's what it's for. –  Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 16:24
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It's wrong because it does not answer the question posed. At present, it is the answer to a question something like "Why are books valuable?". It reminds me of the White Knight : 'The name of the song is called...'. But the song itself is called something else.

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Some read to get knowledge and information, while others read for entertainment. –  J.R. May 15 '12 at 9:12
I agree with Tim. If the test is one of logic, then the student should get no point for the answer. If, however, the test is one of grammar, comprehension or knowledge, then the student deserves the point. –  Shoe May 15 '12 at 10:34
@Shoe: I'd be surprised if this was a logic question on a test for 2nd-graders. –  J.R. May 15 '12 at 13:11
OP's question is about grammar. –  Kris May 15 '12 at 15:39
@J.R. The intention of my post was to exclude grammar, question comprehension and world knowledge from the list of what was wrong with the answer. This left me with logic as the way to categorize the mistake. I'm at a loss to think of a better word or explanation, although pragmatics comes close. –  Shoe May 15 '12 at 18:33
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"Why do people read books?"

"Because people read books to get information."

Why does the answer read a bit awkward? Because it starts with a conjunction.

Strike the first word from the answer, and it reads fine:

People read books to get information.

Because is often used as a leading word when answering a why question, so it's easy to see why a child would start with that word. Perhaps a comma might help it read better:

Because, people read books to get information.

I'm not saying the comma is required. However, we often see a comma used when a sentence begins with a leading conjunction.

Sometimes the central issue revolves around words being awkward in a given context. That said, the fact that a sentence can be improved doesn't necessarily mean it's grammatically wrong.

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When you use "because", since the meaning of this word is "for the reason that, since", there must be a reason after it, so when you say:

Because people read books to get information.

the reason would be "people read books to get information".

But the reason for "why people read books" can't be that one, because it doesn't make any sense, because the real reason which that person is trying to suggest is that they want to get information. The people doesn't read books because others also read books (in this context), but because they want that information that others have becausethey read books before.

So for me, it shloud be, for example

Why do people read books?

(Because they want) to get information.

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The main issue here is that there are two meanings to "Why?" One is "What is the reason/motivation?" and the other is "What is the purpose?"

There are therefore two ways to understand this question:

"What is the purpose for which people read books?"

which should be answered with

"[People read books] [in order] to...".


"What is the motivation for people read books?"

the answer would be

"[People read books] because...".

The questioner interpreted the question as a "What is the reason/motivation" question (which is generally how I'd read the question) but answered with a "purpose" structure.

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