Due to and Owing to

Due to and Owing to are worthy opponents drawing support from all sides in yet another bout of contention. Is there a difference between the two? If so, what? The word “due” has many guises. It can be an adjective, an adverb or a noun. On the other hand, “owe” is a verb. That’s it. If nothing else it gets full marks for simplicity.

Definitions

So let’s start by defining due and owe as the root of confusion:

Due (adjective) – owing, owed; proper, fitting; immediately payable; expected to be ready. “Please use due caution when using the park facilities.”

Due (adverb) – directly or exactly. “The village is due north of here.”

Due (noun) – that which is owed; something that rightfully belongs to one. “He got the job done. You must give him his due.”

Owe (verb) – to be under obligation to pay; to be in debt; to own, to be indebted for; to be required to pay money or goods. “I owe you a debt of gratitude for working so hard.”

Owing (adjective) – due, to be paid; owed (chiefly British, of money or goods). “This account is still owing. Please pay by the end of the week.”

Etymology

Due – Old French deu, from devoir to owe [Latin debére]

Owe – Old English agan, to have, to have to.

(So the bout is between France and England!)

Idioms

In modern usage due to and owing to are pretty well interchangeable. They are both idioms. That is to say, a phrase that has a figurative meaning different from its literal meaning. Here’s a summary of several dictionary definitions:

  • Due to (adjective) – ascribable to, attributable to; caused by; resulting from.
  • Owing to (preposition) – because of; on account of; as a result of.

In line with these definitions the purist would say owing to should be used as a preposition, while due to should be used only as an adjective. Yet standard usage has mixed all this up and you will be forgiven for being confused by the following where they have used due to as a compound preposition.

  • “Due to computer problems, the transfers will be late.”
  • “Due to the bad weather the rugby match has been cancelled.”

Purists emphasise that due to should never be used as a preposition; indeed, should not start a sentence. The acid test for verifying the correct use of due to is to substitute it for “caused by”:

  • “Caused by the bad weather the rugby match has been cancelled.”

As you can see there is no sense in that construction. Use “due to” only if you can substitute “attributable to,” “caused by,” or “resulting from.” And do not use it at the beginning of a sentence.

Here is another good rule of thumb. Due to applies to nouns (adjectival) and owing to applies to verbs (adverbial). As in:

  • “His defeat was due to his lack of skill.”
  • “He was beaten owing to his lack of skill.”

Here are two more examples:

  • “His accident was due to excessive alcohol consumption.”
  • “His accident occurred owing to the fact that he was talking on his cell phone.”
  • “His defeat was due to his lack of skill”.
  • “He was beaten owing to his lack of skill.”

So if you want to be a traditionalist you should only use due to as an adjective. Thus it is wrong to say:

  • “The train was delayed due to bad weather,” but acceptable to say:
  • “The delay of the train was due to bad weather,” where “due to” acts as an adjective modifying delay.
Summary

To put it simply, use due to when you can interchange it with ‘caused by’, and use owing to when you can interchange it with ‘because of’:

  • “The accident was due to the driver’s negligence; the accident was caused by the driver’s negligence.”
  • “The school is closed today owing to the headmaster’s illness; the school is closed today because of the headmaster’s illness.”

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon and The Sands of Rotar.

Last updated: Friday, 17 April 2020