September 17, 2005

The evolving etiquette of "as such"

In this morning's NYT, in an article by Jennifer Steinhauer and Eric Lipton entitled "FEMA, Slow to the Rescue, Now Stumbles in Aid Effort", there's

Evacuees and local officials also complain that FEMA's request for them to register on line or via phone is unrealistic, given that as of Wednesday 310,000 households in Louisiana were still without telephone service and 283,231 were still awaiting power, or nearly 30 percent of the state's households. And the phone lines are almost always jammed anyway. As such, those with cars drive miles to operating help centers in other counties, where the lines are sprawling. Confusion is rampant. [emphasis added]

The CJR's Language Corner complained about this transitional "as such" back in 1998. But here at Language Log, we don't complain, we explain.

It all starts with phrases of the form "As <descriptive noun phrase>, <modified noun phrase> <has some relevant property>":

As a parent, I found this book highly informative.
As a policeman, he's expected to inform the FBI, but instead he becomes a bounty hunter.
As students, you should expect your supervisors to model ethical, professional behavior.
As a partisan of paganism he was forced to leave Athens, but he returned at the end of a year.
As the owners of the airwaves, we should allow them to be used only for public purposes.
As conservatives, these authors might have been expected to cut through much of the muddle-headed leftist dogma that permeates so many discussions of gender.
As Progressives, the reformers were also willing to accept an enlarged. government regulatory role.

Sometimes the descriptive noun phrase has already been used in a previous clause, and to avoid repetition, the anaphor such is substituted. Here's the earliest example I found in the OED (though this is an accidental example, representing the item air-washer rather than the use of as such) :

1905 Lancet 25 Feb. 507/2 The Stellite Air an effectual air-washer and as such it may obviously have numerous hygienic applications.

This is, so to speak, short for "The Stellite Air Deodoriser is an effectual air-washer and as an effectual air-washer it may obviously have numerous hygienic applications."

Some other recent examples from the web:

Books are a cultural product and as such they deserve every protection we can give them.
Rabbits are rodents and as such they must chew to wear down their ever growing teeth.
... these latter two organisms are facultative anaerobes and as such they can be problematic for monitoring purposes since it has been shown that they are able to proliferate in soil, sand and sediments.
Bridges and switches are data communications devices that operate principally at Layer 2 of the OSI reference model. As such, they are widely referred to as data link layer devices.

For conservative users like Evan Jenkins at the CJR, this where things should stop. If you use as such in a passage that can't be analyzed this way, with a backwards connection to an anaphoric noun phrase, and a forward connection to a modified noun phrase in subject position, they'll be on your case. However, it's clear that Norma Loquendi is fighting her way clear of this box. There seem to be two changes: a loosening of the link backward to an antecedent noun phrase, and a loosening of the link forward to a modified noun phrase. When both changes are complete, as such is left as a pure connective adjunct like moreover or therefore.

In the first form of loosening, the antecedent noun phrase for such is only implicit:

Attorneys are often in deposition or court and as such they may not call back for two or three days.

In this case, it's clear that we're meant to infer something like "as people who are often in deposition or court" or maybe just "as busy people".

Directive Leaders are characterised by having firm views about how and when things should be done. As such they leave little leeway for subordinates to display independence, ...

Here we're meant to infer something like "as leaders with firm views about how and when things should be done, they ...".

Sometimes the inferred antecedent for such seems to be almost completely decoupled from the details of the linguistic context. The NYT passage that started us off is an example of this type. In a 1977 paper, Ivan Sag and Jorge Hankamer made a distinction that's relevant here. They pointed out that some anaphors can be used to refer to things in the context that have never been mentioned at all, while others can't. For example, if I happen along while you're trying to tear a telephone book in half, I can start a conversation by saying

I don't think you can do it.

but it's weird at best to say (with no prior context)

??I don't think you can do so.

Sag and Hankamer called the first kind of anaphors "pragmatically controlled" (because the antecedent can be merely implicit in the situation), while the second kind is "syntactically controlled" (because we expect an explicit antecedent in the words recently spoken or written).

There are some uses of such where this distinction is relevant. An expert cook, seeing me trying to chop onions with a carving knife, might suggest (with no prior linguistic context)

With a knife like that, you can't get the force and the motion you need to chop efficiently.

or maybe

With such a knife, you can't get the force and the motion you need to chop efficiently.

For some people, I think that the such in "as such" is moving towards this sort of pragmatic control, if it hasn't gotten there already. Here's another case where the antecedent of such is evoked by the previous text without ever being presented in a specific noun phrase, while the forward link (to they) is just as the standard pattern expects:

The ‘Blues’ do not last. Most women experience them for just 1-2 days. Even when more severe, the ‘Blues’ resolve within 10 days of delivery. As such they can be regarded as a normal reaction and do not require any treatment.

There's a second form of loosening, where such has a perfectly good antecedent, but the noun phrase modified by as such isn't adjacent to it:

Gila monsters are one of only two venomous lizards in the world, the other being the closely related beaded lizards (Heloderma horridum). As such, many states limit the keeping of this species, so check with local laws before purchasing captive bred gila monsters.

Well, maybe as such ought to mean "as a venomous lizard" here, but in any case, it's not the states that are venomous, but the lizards. Cases like this fall (I think) under the heading of dangling etiquette, discussed last year by Geoff Pullum in connection with the example

Rich and creamy, your guests will never guess that this pie is light.

Here's a more subtle example with an as NP adjunct:

As progressives, our focus should be on appointees to the Supreme Court.

The writer wants "as progressives" to modify the group (s)he belongs to, and everything would have worked out according to the standard prescription if only the sentence had been "As progressives, we should focus on appointees to the Supreme Court".

As Geoff explained, "participles, adjectives and also some idomatic preposition phrases, when used as adjuncts, need an understood subject", and "[t]he prescriptive tradition says that the subject filled in must be the one obtained from the subject of the matrix clause". Geoff pointed out that it's hard to maintain that this is a fact of English grammar, since offending examples are extremely common in edited sources, and concludes that "it's manners, not grammar" to furnish your adjuncts with an easily-accessible target of predication.

Sometimes the forward link seems to be completely gone -- no noun phrase plausibly modified by as such can be found at all. This suggests that for many people, as such has become a sort of free-floating discourse-related adverbial, meaning something like "given that this is the case", or "in the state of affairs just described", or simply "therefore".

I don't see any other plausible way to interpret the following quote from a Canadian Council of Forest Ministers 1999 press release:

"Recognition of the need for an international forest convention has continued to gain ground steadily since Rio, with numerous countries now supporting the drive for a convention," stated Natural Resources Canada Minister Ralph Goodale. "All agree that, in today's world, there is a need to work in a focussed and dedicated manner to address the many problems and opportunities facing the global forest community. As such, I will continue to work with my provincial and territorial colleagues toward the establishment of a convention."

In this case, none of the expected nominal components of the original version of the as such construction can be found -- there's neither a coherent antecedent nor a plausible target of predication -- but substitution of a discourse-structuring connective like therefore works perfectly. [Well, maybe Mr. Goodale meant that "as someone who agrees that blah, I will blah"; but I think that's a stretch.]

Here's a case where it's even harder to analyze as such as anything other than a pure connective:

This does not mean the product has no value, but rather that based on clinical trials in humans, there's little hard evidence about the effectiveness of shark liver oil for any condition. As such, there are no formally established dosages for shark liver oil, and the WholeHealth MD recommendations below follow guidelines set forth in these books.

There are 850,000 other Google hits for {" "as such there"}), and a large fraction of them are similarly purified of any grammatical role other than as a discourse connective:

Good and bad phases of life are both in the worldly existence and as such there is no difference as regards results.
Wikipedia is not a medium for the presentation of writers' personal preferences. As such, there should not be any reference to environment, date, working directory, user name, or host name unless absolutely necessary.
Medicare payment for physical therapist services is made at 100 percent of the Medicare physician fee schedule. As such, there is no difference in the amount of Medicare payment where physical therapy services are billed as "incident to" services ...
Therefore, in our example, although Australia only has one capital, and as such there is only going to be one correct answer to the question, 'What is the capital of Australia?', if different answers to the question are given it might be that one person genuinely thought their answer was right, even though it turned out to be wrong ...

The analysis of as such as a pure connective, liberated both from its antecedent and from its target of predication, may also apply to many of the examples where the antecedent and the modified noun phase are unexpectedly inaccessible. If so, then these are not failures of rhetorical etiquette, but simply examples of cultural change. It's not an insult to come to dinner without a tie if you're not aware that one is expected.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 17, 2005 11:29 AM