I wasn't sure how to look this up because I'm not sure the part of speech "why" is in this case, and if it was grammatically correct with or without.



The exact reason why this surname was affixed to them is not entirely clear, except for the fact that they were German.


The exact reason this surname was affixed to them is not entirely clear, except for the fact that they were German.

  • "Why" is a relative adverb here, functioning as an adjunct of reason in the relative clause "why this surname was affixed to them". It is optional, as in your second example; alternatively "that" could be used instead of "why". – BillJ May 27 at 6:47
  • Thanks @BillJ, so if they are both correct is it just a matter of style/voice? – romebot May 27 at 7:03
  • Generally, but not always, the omission of the relative word is found in informal contexts. – BillJ May 27 at 7:33

The Oxford Living Dictionary has this entry in which there is a definition as a Relative Adverb

(with reference to a reason) on account of which; for which.

With example

‘the reason why flu jabs need repeating every year is that the virus changes’

This is the same sentence structure as your sentence except that yours modifies, or intensifies, "why" with "exact" but this does not change the function of "why"

The English First website gives this explanation of relative adverbs which reads

The relative adverbs where, when & why can be used to join sentences or clauses. They replace the more formal structure of preposition + which used to introduce a relative clause.

It also gives the following example of "why" replacing "for which"

Using "for which"

Tell me the reason for which you came home late.

Using "why"

Tell me (the reason) why you came home late.

So in your case "why" is a relative adverb.

I got the OLD entry by searching for "why define". A dictionary definition is always a good place to start for questions like this.

  • thanks @Boldben, but I wasn't clear about your final conclusion. Are both sentences of mine (w and w/o "why") correct? – romebot May 27 at 7:02
  • @romebot Yes it's fine. However "why" is still implied in the sentence, just not specifically included. We do this quite a lot in English. In fact my answer shows that in "Tell me why you came home" the words "the reason" are implied. This is also (the reason) why we can use phrases like "Look out!" even though they don't contain a subject for the verb. In that case the word "You" is implied. – BoldBen May 27 at 7:24
  • I agree that why here is a relative adverb. The reason for which construction is fine when it refers to the whole of the main clause. For example, He quit his job, the reason for which he did not tell me = He did not tell me the reason for quitting his job. But for me it sounds 'off' in EF's sentence Tell me the reason for which you came home late. At any rate, each of the three alternatives: omitting the relative altogether, using the relative why or the subordinator that sound much more natural. – Shoe May 27 at 7:24
  • @shoe I understood that EF were using the construction as an explanation of what was going on, not that the version without "why" was preferable. If you follow the link you will see that they have a matrix of comparisons like that explaining the use of all three relative adverbs. – BoldBen May 27 at 7:32
  • @BoldBen I wouldn't go along with you. "Why" is not used in fused relative clauses -- in "Tell me [why you came home]" the bracketed element is a subordinate interrogative clause (embedded question), not a relative clause. – BillJ May 27 at 7:40

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