When I find myself in terms of trouble

The complex (or compound) preposition “in terms of” is much censured – sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. In this post I’ll examine some of the ways the phrase is used and some of the criticism it has provoked.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the expression to the mid-18C; its early use seems to have been chiefly mathematical or otherwise technical. In fields with precise figures and relationships, such as physics, statistics, engineering, and accounting, “in terms of” – typically coupled with verbs like measure, describe, define, or state – can easily be put to good literal use. As Bryan Garner writes in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, “in the sense ‘expressed by means of,’ the phrase is quite defensible”:

All local four-vectors at the same event in space-time can be expressed in terms of the same set of basis vectors. (I.R. Kenyon, General Relativity)
In a system that encodes information in terms of patterns of activity . . . (Charles Legg, Issues in Psychobiology)
[T]he behaviour of a motor car is to be explained in terms of interactions between fundamental particles (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker)

From the 1940s and 1950s on, the phrase’s general popularity soared, and it’s now used widely and non-literally as “a useful particularizing device” (Robert Burchfield), and as “a vague all-purpose connective” (Hans Paul Guth). I’ll deal with the former usage first. Here, the complex preposition introduces a specification, clarification, or elaboration on a generality, and is widespread in all kinds of contexts. I plucked the following examples from the British National Corpus:

The only way to decide is to assess the situation in each case in terms of the cat’s quality of life. (Desmond Morris, Catlore)
It also ranks highly in terms of total fertility, illegitimate births and the number of elderly people. (The Economist)
Time has established their worth, which is now unlikely to alter substantially, either in terms of esteem or financial value. (Grant Uden, Understanding Book-Collecting)
More information is needed about the composition of the hospital population in terms of socio-economic background, sex, length of stay, age, quality of care received, and so on. (Paul Wilding and Victor George, The Impact of Social Policy)
It . . . aims to provide an introduction to what is needed in terms of equipment, skills and people. (Margaret Allan, Teaching English with Video)

Some of these sentences – and some of the next set of examples – could be rewritten to omit “in terms of”, but this is not essential, and it wouldn’t necessarily improve them; indeed, it could complicate them needlessly. Direct phrasal replacement is an occasional option: in the last example we could substitute “by way of” for “in terms of”, but is this any better? The most important thing is not to overdo things: neither to clutter your writing with the phrase nor to avoid it at all costs.

The expression “think in terms of” is a subset worthy of a short note. The OED defines it as a colloquial phrase meaning: “make (a particular consideration) the basis of one’s attention, plans, etc.”

Darman meant that the President did not think in terms of more than one year at a time (David Stockman, Newsweek, 28 April 1986)
We do not think in terms of capitalist shoes and socialist shoes. (Daniel Miller, Material Culture and Mass Consumption)
But, if you plan your planting . . . it pays to think in terms of shape, colour and texture (Bette Howell, Dandelion Days)


Now for the usage that elicits particular criticism. Sometimes “in terms of” seems to be used merely to fill space, or to carry the general meaning “as regards” or “with respect to”. In this sense it weakly connects elements whose relationship may be unknown or troublesome to describe. MWDEU remarks that the phrase’s very imprecision is its greatest virtue: “writers don’t always want to be precise”. But even when they do, they can develop bad habits. In some prose, I see “in terms of” used between elements whose close relationship is revealed by a contraction or a simple preposition:

The strategy paid dividends in terms of their campaign
(The strategy paid dividends for their campaign)
Explore the project in terms of its aims and methods
(Explore the project’s aims and methods)
What the company intends to do in terms of insurance
(What the company intends to do about insurance)

The next example is a quote by Mark Vaile, former Deputy Prime Minster of Australia. It was printed in the Canberra Times of 6 December 2003. (Source: Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words by Don Watson.) I’ll refrain from offering a revision because I have no idea what Vaile means:

They’re moving things around the different baskets, but it will be the end game in terms of putting numbers in square brackets in terms of tariff reductions, if there’s significant requests on time frames in terms of phase-in.

This is a good illustration of how contagious such phrases can be. Less extreme but similarly redundant is the phrase’s appearance in the following line, uttered recently by a reporter on RTE News:

People have been wiped out in terms of their nest eggs
(People’s nest eggs have been wiped out)

[Edit: A similar example I heard on radio:

People don’t want to risk themselves in terms of their risk of melanoma
(People don’t want to risk [contracting] melanoma)]

The phrase is probably more common in spoken English than in written English. Speakers have less time to organise their thoughts, so they rely more on “vague all-purpose connective[s]” such as “in terms of”, “in relation to” and “regarding” to join their ideas together. When too many of these expressions populate prose, sense becomes obscured and sentences degenerate into waffle. When I encounter them in text I’m editing, sometimes they’re perfectly acceptable and sometimes mere filler. There is no overriding rule: I treat each instance according to its context.

For such an apparently innocuous phrase, though, “in terms of” has attracted considerable reproach and debate. Joseph Kimble cites numerous examples of what he considers a “verbal plague”, while Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett described the phrase as “the lowest point so far in the present degradation of the English language”. Presumably he was referring to its loose usage, since he himself uses the phrase in technical ways (see my second paragraph). Over on Language Log, linguist Arnold Zwicky throws cold water on some of the complaints, and explores some aspects of the problem not covered in this post. Finally, if you’re in a rush, Jack Lynch says a lot in three words.

See also: “With regard to ‘regarding’

[Image source]

2 Responses to When I find myself in terms of trouble

  1. Ha, I’m writing the first comment on a five year old post! (Well, I wanted to run a specific topic by you, and this is where it’s relevant.)

    I’m currently reading the crime novel that @lynneguist’s husband wrote, because I intend to give it to a relative for Christmas and I think it wise to read books before giving them to people. (I’ve been very impressed so far, but let’s wait till I’ve finished before I expand on that.)

    On page 78 (paperback) there’s an “in terms of” that tripped me up, and seemed all the more conspicuous amidst Viner’s generally excellent style. The full sentence reads: “Then at the start of this school year, when they were both assessed and found to be in the top twenty per cent of the population in terms of intelligence, they were placed in English Literature One.

    Personally, I would have suggested replacing this with “… when they were both assessed for their intelligence and found to be in the top twenty per cent of the population …” — but I wonder what you would have done.

    • Stan says:

      It’s not an egregious example by any means, but recasting the line slightly would make it more direct. There are a few ways to do this. Your suggestion is fine, though if the assessment included aspects other than intelligence the following might be preferable: “…when they were both assessed and their intelligence was found to be in the top twenty per cent of the population…”

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