With good reason



The query took me by surprise. A few weeks ago an editor who was reviewing a piece I had submitted (for a publication other than this one) wrote:

You start one paragraph: “There’s good reason we associate. … ” It caught my eye — and I figured I better check! It’s such a subtle little twist, i.e., “There’s good logic to support this idea. … ” vs. “There is a specific reason we think this way. … ” which would require one to insert the “a.” Which one were you going for?

I thought, I was going for “There’s good reason. … ”

Then I thought, Don’t lots of people say that, or am I an outlier on this one?

I had never had reason — or a specific reason either — to give this phrase a second thought.

In fact, the expression there’s good reason continues a long tradition of using the word reason to phrase a justification. The word reason is borrowed from Anglo-Norman in the first half of the 13th century, and within 100 years, the Oxford English Dictionary cites the word with the meaning “the fact or quality of being in accordance with reason; that view of things or manner of proceeding that seems wise, logical, or correct.” It shows up in this time period in such phrases it is reason and to think it reason.

The word reason has also been used since the 13th century to refer to a cause or motive. It is under this definition that the OED editors cite the phrase there is/was reason, as far back as the 16th century. For example, here’s Shakespeare in Henry VI, Pt. II: “There’s reason he should be displeased at it.” And the verb could be omitted, especially if an adjective like good or great precedes reason. Here is Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “You care not for me. Ros. Great reason: for, past care is still past cure.” And in many ways, there’s reason and there’s good reason are fairly synonymous (although the latter is arguably stronger): there’s reason implies that the reason is good enough to justify or motivate whatever it is that follows.

Historically there have been multiple prepositional phrases with reason: There are largely obsolete ones like of reason, through reason, and by reason (although we still use by reason of), and ones that remain current like within reason and with reason. The phrase with reason seems semantically comparable to there’s reason, both suggesting a reasonable (so to speak) justification. For example, the OED cites this 2000 quote from The New York Times Magazine: “Doctors argue, with reason, that the new enthusiasm for placebo surgery is driven by hospital bean counters.

A search of Google Books with the Ngram Viewer shows that over the past 200 years, we have become less inclined to use the unmodified forms there is reason and with reason; these have now leveled off with there is good reason and with good reason, which have held relatively steady, at least in writing.

We may be seeing here another example of the colloquialization of the written language: Both there is reason and with reason seem to be more formal, and they are the ones in decline. For example, the phrase with good reason is three times more common than with reason in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA); and with reason shows up primarily in academic registers, whereas with good reason seems more colloquial, with a strong presence in magazine writing.

In addition to things for which there is good reason, we talk about that for which there is no reason, a reason, every reason, little reason, some reason, and ample reason. Here’s what we don’t talk about so much: that for which there is bad reason. Compared with the 3,366 instances of “good reason” in COCA, there are only 18 instances of “bad reason,” 16 of which appear in the phrase “a bad reason” — in other words, a label for a specific reason that is bad, as opposed to bad reasoning more generally. There is currently nothing idiomatic about there’s bad reason or with bad reason.

There’s an opportunity here. Consider the rhetorical surprise and provocativeness of saying, “There’s bad reason to believe. … ” or “Doctors, with bad reason, argue. … ” The phrasing turns the unmarked good meanings of there’s reason and with reason on their heads, pointing out that what might have seemed reasonable might not actually be so. But at least right now, English speakers and writers seem to have eschewed these (oxymoronic?) phrases — and you can decide whether that is with reason.