Is it natural to say "he explained the reason why he was late"? I suspect that it doesn't make sense.

But I reckon "That is the reason why he's sick" is acceptable with "the reason".

Could it be that the crucial difference lies in the verb we select? The verb explain has as its object a situation, a problem, etc., not a reason.

What do you think?

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    I am not seeing any real problem with any of these sample sentences. "He explained the reason why" can be edited down to "He explained why," so there is touch of pleonasm there, but not too bad, and no absurdity. Reasons, even explanations themselves, can indeed require or warrant explaining: check out the Talmud. The distinction urged seems over-nice, like the White Knight's distinctions among (a) what the name of a song is called, (b) what the name of the song is, (c) what the song is called, and (d) what the song is. – Brian Donovan Jun 21 '14 at 14:08
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    As it turns out, the relative pronoun why may only be used when its relative clause modifies the particular noun reason. If it modifies any other noun, either why is deleted, or that is substituted, or both: the reason why S is grammatical, but not *the cause why, *the purpose why, or *the source why. Relative clauses with why are most common as free relatives. So if you are determined to use why, you hafta engineer the sentence so a reason comes up for it to hang from. – John Lawler Jun 21 '14 at 14:40
  • This came up again today, and the comment above is elaborated here. – John Lawler Jun 21 '14 at 17:49
  • My question is more about sense than about grammar. I find "The reason why he was late was that he was ill" logical, but "He explained the reason why he was late" illogical, when you in fact want to explain a situation or a problem, i.e. his lateness. "He explained why John was late" means he explained a situation, a problem, etc. But 'He explained the reason why John was late" means he explained a reason, e.g. when the reason given for John's lateness was unclear. Most people have focused on style or grammar in this thread, but that's not the question. – Apollyon Jun 22 '14 at 5:23

I would say you are absolutely correct. The object of explain should be a thing that requires, or at least allows, an actual explanation. A reason is itself a type of explanation (in a way), and thus explaining a reason does not really make much sense in most contexts.

Normally, you give a reason, just like you give an explanation. Unless a reason given is unclear and actually requires a subsequent explanation1, giving a reason for something is often practically tantamount to explaining it.

Substituting a few other verbs, this becomes quite clear:

He gave her the reason why he didn’t show up.
He told her the reason why he didn’t show up.
He laid out the reason why he didn’t show up.
?He detailed the reason why he didn’t show up.
?He explained the reason why he didn’t show up.
*He reasoned the reason why he didn’t show up.

The last one is quite obviously ungrammatical—not only because the verb and the object are both entirely identical here, but also (and more importantly) because the verb reason in this sense requires a noun clause (a that-clause, more specifically) as its object.

The preceding two are awkward, because both explaining and detailing are quite similar to giving a reason (in this context, at least), and unless the context makes it clear that it is actually the reason itself that is being expounded upon and given in more pedagogical detail, you end up with a kind of redundancy that sounds clumsy.

Note also that all these verbs (except gave, which is too generic, and reasoned, as mentioned above) can be used without the noun reason, with a simple adverbial subordinate clause:

He told her why he didn’t show up.
He laid out why he didn’t show up.
He detailed why he didn’t show up.
He explained why he didn’t show up.

This gets rid of any awkwardness or clumsiness, since there is no longer an object that is too semantically close to the verb itself. The role of the noun reason is still there, though, since why as a relative adverb is only used anaphorically with a reason as its (im- or explicit) semantic antecedent.


1 Let’s say for example that he was having lunch at 12 o’clock. He spilled soup on his shirt and went home to change into a clean shirt, where he discovered that his wallet with his keys had been stolen on the bus on the way home. That meant he had to wait for a locksmith to come and get the door open for him, call the police and file a report, and call his bank to freeze his credit cards. All this meant that he was late for his meeting at 1 o’clock. If he then simply said, “Sorry I’m late—it was the soup that did it!”, there’s a good chance he would then have to explain the reason why he was late, despite having already given the reason why he was late.

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    Nonetheless, COCA (the Corpus of Current American English) has 22 instances of explained the reason but only 2 of gave the reason. The BNC (British National Corpus) has 11 to 3 in favour of explained. – Colin Fine Jun 21 '14 at 13:50
  • @Colin There is something about the definite singular form with give that is a bit… off, somehow. I can't put my finger on it, but “gave reasons” and “gave a reason” both sound more natural to me, and with further modifiers and elements, even more natural: “I can give you plenty of reasons why X is the case”, for instance, is very common. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 21 '14 at 13:58
  • The corpora seem to agree with you. There are no instances of explained a reason/reasons/some reasons in either of the corpora, but gave a reason has 9 in COCA and 1 in BNC, and gave reasons has 12 in COCA and 9 in BNC. Neither has any instances of gave some reasons. – Colin Fine Jun 21 '14 at 16:09

English allows you to form a reason-noun phrase as follows:

NP <- (Det) + [reason] + (why/that) +

It is grammatical and correct English, and it is very similar to the construction for forming a relative clause noun phrase:

NP <- (Det) + N + (Rel) + S

(where Det is a determiner, N is a noun, Rel is a relativizer such as who, which, that, and S is a full clause). If you like, you can think of the reason-NP construction as a special case of the relative clause NP construction. The differences are that (1) the noun is always reason, (2) the relativizer can be the special case why rather than that or nothing. Reason-NP's are not normally considered relative clauses because reason doesn't play a grammatical role within the relative clause. (for example, in the relative clause the ball which Thomas threw, the ball that fell, ball is the object of threw and the subject of fall).

  • Reason plays a role as an adverbial in the relative clause in a reason-NP; in this regard, it is similar to time-NPs. I’m not sure why that would make it not a relative clause, though. Personally, I’ve always thought of it as a complement clause, but I can think of no real argument why it must be one and not the other (apart from parallels in other languages, which is of course a rubbish argument). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 21 '14 at 16:04

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