13

Garner's Modern English Usage reads

“In 1991, Bridgeport, Connecticut, sought Chapter 9 protection but a judge denied it on the grounds that [use because instead] the city was solvent.” Tony Jackson, “Orange County Hit by Wall St. Selling,” Fin. Times, 8 Dec. 1994, at 6. (On the grounds that suggests—wrongly, here—that the reason isn’t really a good one.)

Why does "on the grounds that", unlike because, suggest the reason isn’t a good one ?

29
  • 57
    Especially in a legal context, but also outside of it, it doesn't. I don't agree with Garner here.
    – randomhead
    Jul 11 at 15:27
  • 40
    Garner is wrong. Jul 11 at 15:38
  • 8
    @FumbleFingers Clearly, you must not be familiar with legal lingo or what Chapter 9 means. If a city is solvent, it cannot claim Chapter 9 protection. Your comment is like saying: The doctor diagnosed diabetes. means something other than what it means. "diagnosed" is just that; "On the grounds that" is also exactly what I said in my answer. There is no wiggle room in this case.
    – Lambie
    Jul 11 at 18:14
  • 11
    @FumbleFingers Your reasoning is faulty. If it looks like a duck, etc. You can't take a perfectly formed sentence for a particular field and then claim its context has interpretational wiggle room. Garner was wrong, you're wrong and most people simply are not getting the context, or refuse to. As I said: Had the city been insolvent the judge could not have denied the motion on any grounds. This is really an either/or situation. Legal terminology is a subset of English. And the phrase is specifically not a circumlocution as used here.
    – Lambie
    Jul 11 at 18:26
  • 16
    @Lambie "on the grounds that" is not legal terminology at all. It is standard (British) English. The Oxford dictionary definition of "grounds" is simply "Factors forming a basis for action or the justification for a belief." The fact that lawyers sometimes happen to speak using standard English doesn't turn everything they say into specialist legal jargon.
    – alephzero
    Jul 11 at 23:46
57

The phrase "on the grounds that" indicates the reason that the judge gave, which the writer may or may not think is correct. Or, and this is important, the writer may not know.

The word "because" indicates whatever the writer thinks is the real reason.

Garner's idea is that, when you say "the judge ruled X on the grounds that Y", you are casting doubt on the judge's reason by refusing to say that you agree it's the real reason. In some contexts, that can be true. But imagine you are a reporter. You've done some research and you have the judge's ruling, but you haven't done your own investigation to see if the town really was solvent. Then, if you're being careful, you shouldn't say "because", since that would suggest you had independent reason to know that the town really was solvent. All you have are the grounds the judge gave. You're just reporting on the contents of the ruling.

9
  • 10
    THIS is the answer. This answer and only this answer (so far) describes the difference in this usage between 'on the grounds that' and 'because'. The reporter didn't write 'because' because the reporter didn't know. So in that sense and only that sense, in this context, 'on the grounds that' is weaker than 'because'. But it's also probably not weaker, and Garner is wrong that using 'on the grounds' suggests that the reason given is 'not a good one'.
    – Alex M
    Jul 12 at 6:46
  • 3
    Very much this. It's a difference between "this is the official reasoning as stated by a judge" and "this is my opinion on why this verdict was reached by the judge". Jul 12 at 9:27
  • 1
    I'd prefer this as the main answer if it just baldly stated that he's wrong here, on the grounds that he is.
    – lly
    Jul 12 at 14:19
  • 2
    This answer hits the nail on the head: "The word "because" indicates whatever the writer thinks is the real reason." What is proper for a journalist to report as simple news is what the judge said the reason was, and that's exactly the grounds the judge gave for the decision. The word because would imply at least new analysis if not editorialization.
    – David K
    Jul 12 at 17:03
  • 5
    @Lambie When I wrote "simple news," I did not meant the language or subject material was simple. I meant precisely news in which the reporter merely reports what happened, as opposed to the kind of "news" in which the reporter draws inferences that could have been left for the reader to make or in which editorial commentary is inserted. And "merely" is not disparaging the reporting here any more than it did when you used that word; on the contrary, it reflects a high standard. Perhaps "straight news" would have been better.
    – David K
    Jul 12 at 17:28
14

I think Mark Foskey’s answer is the correct one, and I have upvoted it accordingly. But I think there’s a subtlety that hasn’t been mentioned in answers yet, one that @FumbleFingers mentioned in a comment.

Many people have said that “one the grounds that” doesn’t imply the reason is bad (and I agree). Yet Garner clearly thinks that it does, at least in this case. Why? Either Bryan Garner, lawyer and linguist, is flat-out wrong, or he’s reading something into this sentence that the rest of us aren’t.

Now I’m not Garner, but what I think he’s seeing here is: Reporting someone else’s reasons, in a way that might seem neutral (neither agreeing nor disagreeing), may connote disagreement. And the more formal or elaborate the phrasing used, the more likely it is to have this connotation.

Examples:

  1. “She didn’t have money for a taxi.”

This is about the most straightforward, neutral way to state this. And yet because it’s so plain, it implies that the statement is fully factual, with no doubt implied.

  1. “She said she didn’t have money for a taxi.”

Now we’re reporting her claim rather than stating it as fact. On its own, this is still a very plain assertion, and yet if it was in a context where it’s compared to version #1, the difference would seem to imply doubt. (“She didn’t.” “She said she didn’t…”)

  1. “She said she didn’t take a taxi because she didn’t have the money.”

Literally, this gives the same information as #2. And yet, the longer phrasing strengthens the implication that I, the narrator, might disagree. By choosing a less straightforward way to form the sentence, I give the impression that I’m distancing myself from what “she said”. I want it to be clear that I’m just the reporter of someone else’s words—don’t blame me if it’s untrue!

  1. “She said she didn’t take a taxi, on the grounds that she didn’t have the money.”

This is even more long-winded, and thus even more likely to imply to a reader that I have my doubts about her reasons.


Now, all that said, I think everyone’s right when they say that “on the grounds that” is perfectly normal phrasing, particularly for a legal judgement (which is where “grounds” = “basis or reason” comes from, as far as I know). But I think Garner’s point is that there’s no reason not to use a simpler phrasing like “because”.

From what I’ve seen, Garner is an advocate for simpler language in legal writing. And in this case, he’s saying that the more elaborate phrasing is bad because it’s unnecessary and because it may imply that the reason wasn’t good. For example, a reader (especially a layperson) may think the judge decided on a technicality; as important as rules and procedures are, most people feel that rules rather than merits are a weaker basis for a decision.


As for the legal details that Lambie has been at pains to point out (in comments as well as an answer), it is entirely true that “the city was solvent” is actually a perfectly good reason to reject this kind of bankruptcy. (At least, as far as I know, being neither American nor a lawyer.) I would point out, though, that Garner acknowledges this (very, very briefly!), by saying that the article wrongly suggests that the reason isn’t good.

So again, not being Garner but taking my best guess at his thought process: He knows that solvency is a good reason for the judge’s decision. He believes that the wordy explanation will imply (to a non-lawyer, and maybe even to less informed or less critical lawyers) that there is something wrong with the reason, when there isn’t. The wordy style is also at odds with Garner’s preference for simplicity. So he recommends just using “because” instead of “on the grounds that”.

6
  • 1
    Garner was going too quickly when he said this "read because". The main usage in a legal context, which this most definitely is, is the not the usage one sees outside of legal context where "on the grounds that" is used by laypeople to show up poor arguments. And the reason for that is that the sentence is completely logical re two things: denying motions and Chapter 9 bankruptcy, neither of which you even bother with.
    – Lambie
    Jul 12 at 16:12
  • 2
    @Lambie: I thought you dealt with the legal side quite well and didn't want to duplicate your answer, so I think "[not] even bother with" is a bit harsh! But if you think it improves the cohesiveness of this as an answer, I will add some mention. Also I disagree that "on the grounds that" is (always) used with poor arguments; as I say in my answer, I think it's a matter of connotation. Jul 12 at 17:31
  • You misunderstood: the other use of the on the grounds that x is used by people who are trying to criticize something as being incorrect.
    – Lambie
    Jul 12 at 19:36
  • @Lambie: No, that's what I thought you meant. I think. But I disagree with you. I think it may connote that, for reasons outlined in my answer, but I wouldn't go so far as to say "this is a phrase chosen because it's critical". It's not like e.g. "supposedly" or "so they claim", which definitely express that "I think they're wrong". Jul 13 at 4:42
  • 1
    +1. But different registers really have different rules. I was shocked to discover that doctors use the phrasing "patient denies X" to mean "according the patient, not-X", with no implication of skepticism or anything like that, whereas in everyday life we'd never say "He denies that X" unless someone is claiming X.
    – ruakh
    Jul 13 at 18:47
9

Question: "Why does "on the grounds that", unlike because, suggest the reason isn’t a good one ?"

It does not suggest that at all. Please read the explanation below.

A judge can deny or uphold a motion (here one for Chapter 9 protection), on the grounds that [etc]. It depends on the context.

Grounds refers to "legal grounds", i.e., reasons based in law or precedent (earlier cases brought to a court). Often written as "on the grounds".

"because" is not a legal term. The situation also could have been this:
The judge upheld the motion for Chapter 9 relief, as the city was bankrupt.

  • A judge must uphold a motion if the motion accurately describes a situation in terms of the law. Chapter 9 bankruptcy calls for a company to be insolvent in order to declare it. As the city was NOT insolvent, the judge - rightly - denied the motion.

The language is accurate, legally correct and does not mean "because" and a basic understanding of Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceeding is required to "get it". It also has no overtones of sarcasm or anything like that.

Definition of grounds and on the grounds
Grounds
The basis or foundation; reasons sufficient in law to justify relief.

Grounds are more than simply reasons for wanting a court to order relief. They are the reasons specified by the law that will serve as a basis (aka the grounds) for demanding relief.

Here is an example from the UK of this usage.

What happens at an appeal against sentence at the Court of Appeal?

At the appeal hearing in the Court of Appeal, the judges will consider> the grounds of appeal and hear submissions from the appellant (or his legal representative) and from the prosecution (although the prosecution do not always attend these hearings). In most cases, if the appellant is in custody he is entitled to be present at the hearing (this can be by video link) except where the only matter under consideration is a point of law. use of grounds

12
  • 3
    However true that all may be, it doesn't approach the question. Jul 11 at 15:28
  • 4
    @GaryBotnovcan That is really not shooting from the hip. It is misleading and mean.
    – Lambie
    Jul 11 at 16:26
  • 5
    @Lambie Clearly and explicitly answering the question seems strictly better than expecting readers to "properly" read the answer / read between the lines to figure out what the answer to the question is. While relying on implication might offer brevity and elegance, it also lends itself to ambiguity, obscurity, doubt and assumption (in varying degrees, depending on what you're implying).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 12 at 7:11
  • 1
    @Lambie: "approach the question" is a common enough phrase in English, particularly in an academic/pedagogic context, albeit not with the meaning required here.
    – psmears
    Jul 12 at 9:58
  • 3
    This answer is correct, but focuses too much on details of one specific example. I agree with Lambie 100% that "on the grounds that" does not imply doubt or uncertainty, especially in a legal context. I have no idea why Garner says that it does. However the question isn't about how the phrase was used in one specific journalist's writing, It's about Garner's claim that the phrase in general implies the reason is questionable. This answer would be better if it included other examples where the phrase is used without such connotations.
    – barbecue
    Jul 12 at 16:47
6

"On the grounds that" does not necessarily suggest that the reason was bad, but it can. Without reading more of that article, I can't say if I would agree with the book or not about what the article suggests. Maybe the supposed suggestion is wrong because the author never intended to suggest it in the first place? Or maybe the article facetiously suggests it on behalf of Bridgeport, to make a light joke at their expense. (The joke being that they would disagree with the ruling. In this case "on the grounds that" would be similar to "for the little reason that", where "little" is facetious.)

Why? As Lambie's answer explains, "on the grounds that" introduces the legal basis claimed to support something. Using technical language like this can be used to hint at disagreement, similar to when something is said to be "illegal by the letter of the law". Well, if something's specified as illegal by the law, it's simply illegal, right? But people usually refer to "the letter of the law" to say that either they personally disagree, or that the law is not enforced in the same way. It's a way to purposefully leave something out of what you say, by saying something more precise.

The point is, "on the grounds that" is not always used in this way, but it can be.

1
  • I thought I could not have been clearer. On the grounds has nothing to do with "because" per se. You can only declare Chapter 9 if you are insolvent., and as the company was solvent (not bankrupt), the judge made the right ruling. The article is technically correct in terms of legal jargon. It is not sarcastic and it is not a joking tone either.
    – Lambie
    Jul 11 at 16:05
0

As many others have stated, the basic answer to your question is "'on the grounds that' doesn't suggest the reason is invalid". However, I disagree rather firmly with the currently top-voted answer (that the distinction is about the reporter knowing or agreeing the rationale was correct).

The phrase "on the grounds that" is used here for two reasons:

  1. The phrase "on the grounds that" tells you the reporter is giving you the judge's reasoning, where "because" could also be used to convey the reporter's reasoning. The reporter's opinion has zero legal weight, and the judge's has all the weight. Maybe the reporter doesn't agree. Maybe the reporter doesn't know if he agrees. Maybe the reporter can write a dissertation on all the reasons he does agree. But it doesn't matter, because he's not the judge.

  2. "Because" can get very complicated. "On the grounds that" is to the point." "Because" involves an entire tapestry of physical, social, legal, and pragmatic issues that started with the Big Bang and ended up with a legal decision. We don't generally report that entire tapestry, but it's obvious that the judge's personal views, political pressures and so forth affect his decision. It could be interesting or even useful to understand all the elements that went into the decision-making process, but those aren't legal doctrine. By focusing on the legal doctrine submitted by the judge, the reporter is limiting the article to the primary point that actually matters. "On the grounds that" tells the reader this is what's happening.

There is another nuance to the phrase, though I don't think it's applicable here:

  1. There could be many other legally-valid arguments for why a ruling was made, but the court didn't bother using those arguments as grounds. Maybe the defendant isn't even the person being charged, they have a clear alibi proving they couldn't have done the crime, and the prosecution charged them for destruction of property when the crime committed was running a stop sign. But the judge threw the charge out on the basis that the statute of limitations was expired without even looking at the other factors.

    In this example, we all know the case was horribly flawed, but the actual ruling was only based on the statute of limitations. A reporter would state this, using a phrase such as "on the grounds that", despite knowing the judge could have thrown it out on other grounds as well. "Because", on the other hand, could be construed as saying none of the other issues had legal justification.

0

tl;dr The terms "because" and "on the grounds" mean different things. "Because" is for causation, "on the grounds" is for justification. Ideally causation and justification align in simple legal scenarios, allowing the shorter "because" to be favored. Use of "on the grounds" might suggest that the scenario wasn't simple enough for "because" to have been appropriate.


"Because" for causation; "on the grounds" for justification.

To better define the terms:

  • "Because" describes why something is. Literally, constructed from be and cause, i.e. the cause of something's being. (Also by cause.)

  • "On the grounds" describes the underlying platform for an argument. Literally, an argument rests on the logical-underpinning (grounds) of [whatever].

For example, say Alice purchased something online, but the product wasn't as-described. Then:

  • Alice would request a refund because she wants her money back.

  • Alice would request a refund on the grounds that the product wasn't as-described.

These weren't interchangeable. For example, say Alice got a product that was much better than described: even though she'd seem to have the same basis for getting her money back, presumably she wouldn't want to. On the flip-side, Alice might want her money back even if the product was as-described if she later changed her mind about the purchase.


"Because" sometimes approximates "on the grounds".

Usually events could happen for a wide variety of reasons. For example, part of why Alice was late to school was that the school was built; if it wasn't built, then Alice couldn't have been late to it. Still, we wouldn't generally say that Alice was late because the school was built.

So, say that Alice got a coupon for a free gift at a store. Usually:

  • Alice wouldn't pay because she wants to keep her money.

  • Alice wouldn't pay on the grounds that she has a coupon for it.

That said, Alice probably wouldn't normally try to not-pay for an item; so, we can say that part of why Alice didn't pay was because of the coupon. This is like the above example of Alice being late to school because the school was built: it's technically true, if a bit off-target.

Point being that if someone has grounds for an argument to do something, then having those grounds may be part of why they'd do it, such that we might say that "because" can sometimes be a somewhat off-target substitute for "on the grounds".


How these terms differ in judicial settings.

Often folks hope that legal-reasoning would align causation with justification, making the terms "because" and "on the grounds" interchangeable.

For example, say there's a law:

If Alice buys an item, she must pay tax equal to 10% of its price.

Then:

  • Alice would pay 10% sales-tax because she wants to comply with the law, which says that she must do so.

  • Alice would pay 10% sales-tax on the grounds that the law says she must do so.

And if we assume that people generally want to comply with the law in a simple legal-setting, then presumably we can simplify the above examples which would then be basically the same thing.

However, say that there's a law:

If Alice and Bob conflict, then Charlie can pick who wins.

If Charlie picks Alice or Bob as the winner, then Charlie could do so on the grounds of that law – though since the law seems indifferent to Alice vs. Bob, presumably we couldn't say that Charlie picked Alice or Bob over the other because of the law.

In simple cases in which either term could work, writers might prefer "because" for brevity. However, in more complex cases in which causation and justification aren't so interchangeable, writers might have to specify the more verbose "on the grounds".


Summary.

"Because" and "on the grounds" mean two different things; they're not generally interchangeable.

Legal settings can be a special exception, because ideally causes of legal action are well-aligned with legal justification. When such alignment exists and either term works, presumably "because" would be favored since it's shorter/simpler, while use of the more verbose "on the grounds" may suggest that things aren't quite as straightforward.

However, more precise speakers might avoid conflating "because" and "on the grounds", so it'd probably be good to avoid broadly assuming that "on the grounds" generally implies skepticism.

1
  • The most common of the seldom-recorded meanings is “and the evidence is that” <it must be snowing in Chicago because the airport has been shut down for “weather-related reasons”>. This usage contains an ellipsis: “(I deduce) p because q.” Sometimes because occurs in a question in the sense “given the fact that” or “in view of the fact that” <Why are you wearing an overcoat, because it’s 85 degrees out here!>. Here the ellipsis is “(I’m asking) p because q.” books.google.es/…
    – GJC
    Jul 14 at 12:11
0

Circumscription is often used to hint at dodgy doings.

because is pretty neutral.

ostensibly because conveys a strong suggestion that a phoney reason was given

on the grounds that is somewhere in between

fussy or pompous people like to use big phrases, which is another reason to use the plainest form that accords with your meaning

-1

This might have been better as a comment, but comments are necessarily brief and the lack of paragraphing is a nuisance.

First, I agree in large part with the spirit of the answers of both Foskey and Pederick. I have upvoted both.

Second, I agree with FumbleFingers that this site is devoted to English in general, not just the jargon of U.S. bankruptcy jurisprudence. Note that the quotation being criticized comes from a newspaper of general circulation, not from a legal document. If there is a distinction to be drawn between normal English usage and a technical usage, it is legitimate to point that out if context indicates that it is relevant, which it may be when a newspaper is reporting on a legal matter. But it is not the case that the public or a newspaper will or must conform to the conventions of American legal writing.

Third, I agree that “on the grounds that” means “because” or “for the reasons that.” The idea suggested in what was been quoted that “on the grounds that” means “for the mistaken reason that” is pure balderdash. However, the field of meaning of “on the grounds that” is narrower than that of “because.” As a matter of normal (American) English, no one would say

He died on the grounds that his airplane sank in the Arctic Ocean.

Instead, “on the grounds that” is used when multiple reasons may apply. It specifies which of those reasons does or do apply.

Fourth, I do not agree literally with Foskey’s answer. I agree with its spirit. The reporter used “on the grounds that” because that was an apt phrase.

No one would interpret “the judge dismissed the case because the city was solvent” as meaning either:

(1) the judge’s reason had nothing to do with solvency, but the decision was correct because I, the reporter, can affirm with certainty that the city is solvent and that solvency is a legal bar to relief under Chapter 9; or

(2) the judge decided (as I the reporter can confirm) that the city was insolvent as a matter of fact and (as I the reporter confirm) that a solvent city has no legal standing under Chapter 9 as a matter of law.

Undoubtedly, the reporter used “on the grounds that” due to recognition that the judge’s decision involved multiple considerations, including whether the city was insolvent in fact under either of the meanings of that word and whether insolvency was the only legal basis for relief under Chapter 9. In fact, I would not be surprised if the reporter had copied that phrase from a legal summary or the opinion itself. But I think the spirit of Foskey’s answer is correct: the reporter is trying to report as accurately as possible and so used “on the grounds that” because judicial decisions almost always depend on multiple considerations.

Fifth, my only disagreement with Pederick is that verbosity may well be construed as implying doubt, but we should not conclude that a longer but more exact phrase implies doubt.

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Glorfindel
    Jul 17 at 19:41
-2

"On the grounds of...." Intent & Meaning (https://www.thesaurus.com)

Again, the Dictionary can easily be referenced -

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/grounds

verb (used with object) - to place on a foundation; fix firmly; settle or establish; found. "Joe" is charged on the grounds that he was seen urinating on a policeman's car at 4 am. Thus, in this case, the "grounds" for Joe's arrest was that he allegedly urinated in the car. Do you know WHY we say that? First, we have a Constitution.

Amendment Four - requires probable cause for search warrants; prohibits nonspecific search warrants Amendment Five - Among other things, but for our purposes, forbids deprivation of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law".

Then there's the concept of -

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

This is the definition of "Allege(d)" from an online dictionary - note, a good dictionary, teamed w/ a thesaurus, are two essential tools when learning the complex and varied words of the English language. if one is unsure; I suggest picking up these reference books (or use an online app/service). I use them all the time! (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/allegeverb)

[used with object], al·leged, al·leg·ing

to declare with positiveness; assert (there's a word for you, assert. Not too trite, filled with "punditry", or "propaganda" for your taste, right?) to allege a fact. to declare before a court or elsewhere, as if under oath. to plead in support of; offer as a reason or excuse

So barbeque, apparently, allegedly AND apparently are NOT used as much as you think by "pundits" and "propagandists"....

If you are insinuating that Conservatives or Republicans are allegedly "right-wing" extremists and, the most idiotic phrase ever to be turned, "white supremacists" (lmao, and I'm a hardcore Libertarian and you offend me!) what on earth is your opinion of LEFTISTS? Monks???

I believe that, when I signed onto this, the owner/CEO said, clearly, that this was a platform for learning not for "chit chat" or "arguments". Believe me, disbelieve (typical). But it's all right there should you care to check my work. I've only been a writer for THIRTEEN YEARS....so wtf do I KNOW???
And my GOD, lighten up!

2
  • No, not here it isn't. Not coupled with a judge denying a motion.
    – Lambie
    Jul 12 at 16:08
  • 3
    Emphasizing words like "allegedly" or "apparently" as a way of implying that it's not necessarily trustworthy information is a common debating tactic used by pundits and propagandists. Ignoring this implication is naive.
    – barbecue
    Jul 12 at 16:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.