October 24, 2005

In terms of recency,...

Here's a reporter ranting about the phrase "in terms of" in an op-ed piece in his newspaper:

In terms of "in terms of," I just wanted to put this in terms that you might understand.  In terms of "in terms of," everything is so much in terms of "in terms of" these days that the terms have stopped making sense...

"In terms of," I think, should be terminated...

In terms of historical perspective, "in terms of" is the new "like" -- or, for the Northern Californians among us, the new "hella."...

Who is this grammatical curmudgeon?  Is this one of the seasoned journalistic complainers -- maybe Philip Howard, James Cochrane, or William Safire?  And is "in terms of" some new affliction, a recently spreading noxious weed in the garden of English?

The journalist is Jake Wachman, a Stanford senior (majoring in Science, Technology and Society), writing in the 10/13/05 issue of the Stanford Daily (p. 4).  He seems to have just noticed the idiomatic "in terms of" and so thinks it's a recent thing and is all over the place -- the Recency and Frequency Illusions I've described here on Language Log.   But in fact the usage has been around with some frequency since roughly the time Wachman's grandparents were teenagers: MWDEU suggests that it became popular following World War II and notes that it has been widely deplored in the advice literature on English grammar and usage at least since 1954.

(The Recency Illusion has been getting some press recently.  Jan Freeman's "The Word" column in the Boston Globe for 10/9/05 looked at examples from her correspondence, under the heading "Losing our illusions", concluding: "When you spot what looks like an upstart usage, it's probably later than you think."  And several conference papers by members of the Stanford ALL Project -- Buchstaller & Traugott at the Studies in the History of the English Language 4 conference in Flagstaff a few weeks ago, Buchstaller & Deeringer and Rickford et al. at the New Ways of Analyzing Variation 34 conference in New York City over the weekend -- mention it prominently.  Full disclosure: I am a member of the Stanford ALL Project -- since the Rickford et al. paper appeared on the program as being by "Stanford ALL Project", I've begun thinking that all five of the faculty members involved should start introducing ourselves as "Professor Stanford A. Project" -- but I didn't write the bits that mention my Language Log postings.)

The standard objections to "in terms of" are that it's wordy, three words where one preposition ought to do (OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS, as Strunk tells us, succinctly and sternly), and that it's imprecise.  MWDEU notes (with relevant examples) that the imprecision can be a virtue and that replacing "in terms of" with a simple preposition can be a tricky task, sometimes requiring major reworking of other parts of the sentence.  It could have also noted that the three words of "in terms of", one of them a noun that is normally accented, might have some value too: the phonological weight of the expression puts some emphasis on it, highlighting its (relationship) semantics.  There is a more or less constant pressure to bulk up simple prepositions for the purposes of emphasis; just last week I caught someone saying "within the circumstances", presumably to improve on the simple "in".  Brevity is not the only virtue.

Wachman's rant focuses on one use of "in terms of" that most of the manuals don't separate from the larger bulk of uses: sentence-initial topic-marking "in terms of":

"In terms of office hours, I recently heard a teaching assistant say, "they are from two until four."  In terms of better ways to say that same thought, he could have said, "Office hours are from two to four."  That would have half as many words, four fewer syllables and a much better sound to boot.

I'm not sure what Wachman's metric for goodness of sound is, but I suspect that he's just repeating his objection to "in terms of", expressed now as an objection to its very sound.  (Linguistic pet peeves are like that.  They start to sound ugly to the peeved.)  Otherwise, we're back to brevity.  But the teaching assistant wasn't just providing information about office hours.  He was announcing that he was going to say something about office hours, and then he said it.  He was making the topic explicit, instead of relying on the implicit association between subjecthood and topicality (as in "Office hours are from two to four").  This is often a good thing to do in discourse; it's helpful to the people who are listening to you or reading you.  It would be nice if English had a grammaticalized topic marker, something like the famous wa of Japanese (and parallel items in vast numbers of other languages), but it doesn't, so we press various idioms into service:

About office hours: they're from two to four.
Concerning/Regarding office hours, they're from two to four.
As concerns/regards office hours, they're from two to four.
As for office hours, they're from two to four.
With respect/regard to office hours, they're from two to four.
As far as office hours are concerned, they're from two to four.

All of these are standard idioms.  The last of these has a much-deprecated non-standard variant

As far as office hours, they're from two to four.

(studied in detail by Rickford, Wasow, Mendoza-Denton, & Espinoza in Language 71.1.102-31 (1995); yeah, I know, another Stanford plug), though I can't resist pointing out that all that's going on here is the omission of unnecessary words.  And Left Dislocation (see the extended discussion in Birner & Ward, Information status and noncanonical word order in English (1998)) provides yet another, and even briefer, way of marking topics:

Office hours, they're from two to four.

This might seem a bit abrupt, and in any case LD is widely viewed as informal, conversational, and/or non-standard, hence not acceptable in formal standard written English.  Still, it can be skillfully deployed, as in this excerpt from an interview with gay sex/relationship columnist Jason Steele (in The Advocate, 10/25/05, p. 24):

There's one article I submitted recently about how I personally can't stand gay dance music.  I'm more into Bravery or the White Stripes.  Any straight person who's reading these columns, I don't want them to think all gay people go out to gay dance clubs like those in Queer as Folk.

The textbooks won't let you use LD or plain "as far as" for topic marking in formal writing, but there are still plenty of choices.  "In terms of" is just another one in this set.  Yet it gets singled out for calumny, probably because it is perceived as being a recent (and therefore unnecessary) addition to the set and because it is perceived as being "overused".  These themes are explicit in the crusty James Cochrane's discussion (Between You and I, p. 67):

In terms of is still occasionally used correctly..., but in recent times it has started to behave like an irresistible virus, destroying and replacing such old familiar words and phrases as concerning or as regards or in view of or in the light of or even simply about, to the extent that one seems to hear or read it a hundred times a day.

Contagion, invasion, and conquest!  An occasion for a moral panic!

Putting the drastically overheated imagery aside, there are two factual claims here: that "in terms of" is recent, and that it's frequent, more frequent than its competitors.  The first claim is just false.  It's not even true for sentence-initial topic-marking "in terms of", since I recall heartfelt puzzled complaints by colleagues at the University of Illinois and Ohio State University, back in the 60s, about their students' affection for "in terms of" as a topic-marking device in compositions and papers.  (My colleagues were not at all pleased when I told them that the whole thing probably came down to a difference in preferences for topic-marking devices, so that if they wanted their students to replace all those occurrences of "in terms of" by "as for" or "with respect to" or whatever, they were just going to have to confess that some people are unaccountably annoyed by "in terms of" so maybe you should avoid it, or at least use it sparingly.  I didn't touch on the possibility that the different topic-marking devices might actually be doing slightly different things.)

As for frequency -- I'm a big "as for" user, by the way -- I have no idea what the facts are (though, having been sensitized anew to "in terms of" by Wachman's piece, I'm still not coming across many occurrences), but I'm sure that Cochrane is deeply ignorant on the subject and is merely behaving like someone in the grip of the Frequency Illusion (as well as the Recency Illusion).  If someone is willing to slog though a lot of data to figure out who uses topic-marking "in terms of", how often, in what contexts, and for what purposes, I'd cheer them on and welcome the results.  Warning:  this is not a quick and easy project.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 24, 2005 09:25 PM