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
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
for 10/9/05 looked at examples from her correspondence,
under the heading "Losing
", 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
(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
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
(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
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):
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