April 26, 2004

A self-annihilating sentence

Ron Hogan recently asked me about an obscure phrase in Sean O'Hagan's Guardian review of a new book on Bob Dylan's lyrics by Christopher Ricks. As a result, I read the review all the way to the end, which I might not otherwise have done. I'm grateful, because the first sentence of the last paragraph is a gem:

The writing of this book was, I'm told, a labour of love and, as such, I am pained to point out how defeated I was by its ungainly style.

This is a wonderful example of what Saul Gorn used to call a "self-annihilating sentence". It's not as succinct as "Essentially is essentially meaningless", but it has real charm. Its finest feature, in my opinion, is its ungainly use of "as such" to mean "that being the case" or "therefore". A full appreciation of O'Hagan's achievement requires a bit of discussion -- so unless you are a fan of grammar or of irony or both, you may want to skip the rest of this post.

The standard gloss for "as such", as in Merriam-Webster, is "as intrinsically considered : in itself". Generalizing from "in itself" to a wider set of pronouns, this is the meaning when Kant writes (in translation) about "ideas as such", when medical researchers conclude that "Fungal spores as such do not cause nasal inflammation", or when a gardener writes that "I have nothing against cats as such but they do tend to use our garden as a toilet."

However, this gloss is incomplete as a picture of "as such" usage. We need to consider two modifications, one a sort of semantic bleaching, and the other a difference in the connections of as and such with the words and phrases around them.

In the first form of generalization, as such may become a sort of weasel wording, allowing the writer to avoid committing to a fully general statement ("I have nothing against the French as such"), or (as Ken Wilson wrote in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English) as such may be "used mainly for emphasis" The story lines of Wagner's operas display surprisingly little narrative skill as such.".

This bleached-out concessive or emphatic as such seems to be what Charles Bernstein meant to use in writing an article entitled "Against National Poetry Month As Such". Bernstein is against National Poetry Month not only as intrinsically considered and in itself, but also in its relationship to other aspects of contemporary American culture and indeed in every other way he can think of, and he proposes that it should be replaced by "National Anti-Poetry Month". In Bernstein's title, maybe "as such" is just verbal boldface, or maybe it's a way of telegraphing the idea that Bernstein opposes National Poetry Month but favors poetry, or maybe (since Bernstein is a poet who believes that "sense remote / Adduces worth") it's both at once.

In the second form of generalization, "as such" is not used to modify a preceding noun phrase, but rather is connected to a noun phrase occurring later; while at the same time, such refers anaphorically to a completely different phrase in an earlier clause. This structure can be understood by looking at a pair of sentences like these:

As an expert in the field, Dr. Gubser is frequently invited to speak at lectures, and members of the media often seek his opinions and analysis.

Dr. Gubser is an expert in the field. As such, he is frequently invited to speak at lectures, and members of the media often seek his opinions and analysis.

In the first example, "as an expert in the field" is connected to "Dr. Gubser", but precedes it. In the second example, "such" is an anaphoric reference to the preceding noun phrase "an expert in the field", and "as such" has exactly the same relationship to Dr. Gubser that the full as-clause did in the first sentence.

Usage mavens generally advise that such phrases ought to connect to the subject of the following clause, rather than to a noun phrase in some other position. On this view, the following version would be deprecated:

? As an expert in the field, members of the media often seek Dr. Gubser's opinions and analysis.

I generally agree with this advice (though I don't see anything wrong with sentences like "As a bonus, we get a Wide Area Network as well.") When a sentence-initial adjunct needs to connect to a specific noun phrase deep in the following material, it can be confusing. However, this advice is very widely ignored, and because it is often so unclear what the connections to the preceding and following material really are, "as such" has come to be used as a kind of generic bit of inter-sentential stitching, as this Columbia Journalism Review note complains.

My impression is that this linking usage of "as such" is becoming quite common -- if you search Google for strings of the form "as such X", for appropriate values of X, you'll find quite a few:

(link) A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown. As such, no one knows what will happen.
(link) everyone will get the email, and as such, everyone is welcome to join in
(link) The Code sets out general principles to guide employees in making ethical decisions, they cannot and are not intended to address every specific situation. As such, nothing in the Code prohibits or restricts Reed Elsevier from taking any disciplinary action on any matters pertaining to employee conduct...

This is a normal example of syntactic and semantic change in progress, and I'm certainly not about to say that these sentences are ungrammatical -- for those who have made the change. However, these sentences are certainly bad (or at least inconsiderate) writing, because they're puzzling to readers who still see as such as a fronted modifier containing an anaphor, and who will seek in vain for suitable preceding and following linkages.

Now we can see what a perfect little piece of found poetry it is, when O'Hagan uses as such as a linkless linker in the center of his ungainly complaint about Ricks' ungainly style:

The writing of this book was, I'm told, a labour of love and, as such, I am pained to point out how defeated I was by its ungainly style.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 26, 2004 10:42 AM