Language’’ is a regular feature of the Michigan Bar Journal,
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might have called this article ‘‘About in terms of’’ or ‘‘The Case
Against in terms of’’ or (more dramatically) ‘‘Down with in
terms of.’’ By using the first in terms of instead of a clearer,
more common connector, I obscured the meaning—and that is my point.
a verbal plague loose in the land, a contagion so strong that it seems
unstoppable. So far, it has afflicted American speech more than American
writing. Just listen to what you hear on talk shows, in meetings, in courtrooms,
in everyday conversation. Every thing is in terms of this and in
terms of that. In terms of ad nauseam.
an earlier column, I said that another wordy phrase—prior to—‘‘takes
the booby prize for the most common inflated phrase in legal and official
In speech, though, in terms of has run away with that distinction.
phrases belong to a grammatical category of prepositions consisting of
more than one word—variously called compound or complex or phrasal prepositions.
In another earlier column, I offered a list of compound prepositions with
their shorter and simpler equivalents.2
I noted that the great H.W. Fowler said compound prepositions are ‘‘almost
the worst element in modern English, stuffing up what is written with
a compost of nouny abstractions.’’3
And the trouble with many compound prepositions (like in terms of)
is not just that they waste words. They also tend to obscure logical relationships,
to muddy the connection between ideas.
is what a few leading authorities have said about in terms of and
terms of is often indefensibly verbose. Whenever you can replace it
with a simple preposition, do so.... —Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary
of Modern American Usage.
terms of [is] a piece of padding usually best omitted. —Strunk &
White, The Elements of Style.
present-day writing is peppered with the phrase in terms of, probably
because it has a fine, learned sound. But often it is all sound, signifying
nothing. The phrase, properly used, signals a translation from one kind
of language to another. —Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer.
In all utility writing today, official and commercial, the simple prepositions
we have in such abundance tend to be forgotten and replaced by groups
of words more imposing perhaps, but often less precise. —Sir Ernest Gowers,
The Complete Plain Words.
a year ago, during several weeks, I collected some examples that I happened
to hear or read. These are not all the examples I ran into during that
time—just the ones that I remembered to jot down:
May, we have been dry in terms of rain [we haven’t had any? much? rain].
writer had a complete understanding of the case in terms of the facts
and the applicable law. (judge)
been away so long, I’m behind in terms of [on] culture. (radio caller)
we know anything about X in terms of his background [about X’s background]?
70 years, a little structural problem on the best house ever designed
doesn’t strike me as something that raises any kind of revisionist issues
in terms of [about] Mr. Wright’s career. (college professor)
can still make progress in terms of [on] racism. (conference representative)
trying to take Luther’s game and expand it a bit, especially in terms
of how he rushes the quarterback. (football coach)
can’t tell you the timetable in terms of [for]-opening up this issue.
Fundamentals in terms of [such as? especially?] earnings remain weak.
emphasis will be more in terms of [on] prevention. (health official)
Income Fund gives me more flexibility in terms of trading. (financial
will give the President what he wants, in terms of both resources and
authorization. (political leader)
starts, a key indicator in terms of the housing market, were down 7 percent.
is basically destroyed in terms of [by the?] fighting. (radio commentator)
athletics is great in terms of [for] engendering spirit. (football coach)
trying to paint a picture that’s black and white in terms of [about?]
good and evil. (radio caller)
ought to read David McCullough’s book in terms of [about? before?] embarking
on a presidency. (TV host)
heard stories in terms of how prepared the terrorists were. (television
are so many variables at play regarding departures (of visitors) that
it creates problems in terms of monitoring people.
trail has run a little cold in the United States in terms of active participants.
[The trail of active participants in the United States has run a little
cold.] (television commentator)
have some information that I think would be helpful to them in terms of
running the city. (public official)
you think the food will make a difference in terms of how the Afghan people
respond? (radio host)
would be very cautious in terms of [about] drawing long-term conclusions.
has been collateral damage in terms of [to?] postal workers. (radio commentator)
was the only purchase I made in terms of appliances. [This was the only
appliance I bought.] (home decorator)
Patriot Act is an extremely dangerous law in terms of [because of] the
very ex-ansive definition of ‘‘terrorism.’’ (immigration lawyer)
you’re unsuccessful in terms of winning [When you’re not winning], you
always look for things to adjust. (basketball coach)
we can, of course, make some allowances for speech, in terms of
has become a bad habit. In the examples above, notice how often it functions
as a loose, all-purpose coupler, one that seems to introduce a tacked-on
with in terms of.
A Modest Wish List for Legal Writing, 79 Mich. B.J. 1574, 1577
Plain Words (Part 2), Mich. B.J., Sept. 2001, at 72, 72.
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 102 (Sir Ernest
Gowers ed., 2d ed. 1965).