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I have a question about the usage of the preposition "for" here:

Stanford students stand out for their academic excellence.

How is the above sentence different if "for" is replaced with "because of":

Stanford students stand out because of their academic excellence.

?

Also, could I write:

They arrived late for the heavy traffic.

to mean:

They arrived late because of the heavy traffic.

?

  • "Stanford is a diploma mill." - My husband, who has a master's degree from there. Anyway, your statements are implying that all Stanford students have academic excellence... which simply isn't true. But I'd argue your version is better than the version on the site. "because of" or "due to" seem like they'd be a better fit to me. – Catija Jul 11 '15 at 21:56
  • "for" is fine there. Burgundy is known for its wines. A certain Yale secret society stands out for the number of US presidents who belonged to it. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 11 '15 at 23:56
  • @TRomano Are there situations where "for" in the sense of "because of" cannot be replaced with "because of"? – meatie Jul 12 '15 at 1:42
  • @TRomano Could I write: "they arrived late for heavy traffic" to mean "they arrived late because of heavy traffic"? – meatie Jul 13 '15 at 5:46
  • @meatie: No you couldn't, in part because "to arrive late for {something}" would interfere. But you could say "They arrived late, for all the traffic" at least in my neck of the woods, where one often hears phrases such as "I can't think, for all the noise you kids are making." "for all" means "because of" -- but also "in spite of", nearly the opposite. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 13 '15 at 10:29
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In your first pair of examples, for and because of are equivalent semantically, unambivalent, and correct grammatically.

However, in your second pair, the second option is preferable

  • They arrived late because of the heavy traffic.

This is because in the first option

  • They arrived late for the heavy traffic.

there is a subtle ambiguity in the meaning of "for": We resolve it because we understand "heavy traffic" as something that can cause someone to be late. So we assume this is the "because of" sense of for, as in "You can't see the forest for the trees".

But if you didn't know that "heavy traffic" is undesirable, you might parse it as:

  • [alas] They arrived so late that they missed the heavy traffic.

To better see how much this depends on the meaning of the NP that follows "for" (i.e., "heavy traffic"), we need only replace "heavy traffic" (a known hindrance) with a desirable event:

  • They arrived late for the party.

We have no problem understanding that either. It means they were going to the party, and did not arrive on time. Of course, this is a different sense of "for". But it's the same syntax!

Now if we try to replace for with because of, look what happens:

  • They arrived late because of the party.

Now we are not saying that they arrived late at the party; we are saying that they arrived late at some later, unnamed event, because they had been at the party.

So yes, there are cases where you cannot replace "for" with "because of".

(And there are cases where you not only could, but ought to)

Your second pair of examples are actually that type of case, syntactically—it is only semantics that allows a native speaker to discern the intended sense of "for".

Suppose we phrase it this way:

  • But for the heavy traffic, they would have arrived at the party on time.

This is unambiguous, though it would be considered quaint or overly formal (in AmE).

But if we rephrase this same idea, in the simpler and more idiomatic style below,

  • They were late for the party because of the heavy traffic.

we see a clear distinction between the usage of "for" and "because of". You could NOT replace for with because of; nor could you replace because of with for.

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The meaning doesn't change when you substitute because of. In fact, because of is listed as a definition of for. For example, see Collins' (sense 11).

It is possible that people will prefer the sentence with because of because it seems more direct, and perhaps because it seems clearer. There might also be a perception that using this meaning of for is archaic.

However, no native English speaker would have difficulty understanding either sentence.

  • Are there situations where "for" in the sense of "because of" cannot be replaced with "because of"? – meatie Jul 12 '15 at 1:56
  • Nope. There might be situations where you wouldn't want to, as noted. But nope. – jimsug Jul 12 '15 at 1:57
  • Could I write: "they arrived late for heavy traffic" to mean "they arrived late because of heavy traffic"? – meatie Jul 13 '15 at 5:46
  • @meatie can you please update your question also? Comments aren't permanent. In answer to your additional question here, yes, but you would need to say they arrived late for the heavy traffic. It means the same thing, but sounds archaic. – jimsug Jul 13 '15 at 5:53
  • How come the Stanford sentence using "for" sounds like standard English, but my sentence sounds archaic? – meatie Jul 13 '15 at 6:12

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