I’m no punctilious Professor Horrendo, pouncing with glee on the perceived verbal or grammatical lapses of lesser mortals. I’m not even in the prescriptivist camp: if the thing spoken or written makes sense, if its meaning is clear to a reasonably lucid person, then it’s fine with me.
Still, I find that certain phrases and words are best avoided, particularly if one wishes to speak clearly and project a minimum of professional competence. Filler words such as “um” or “you know” or “like” are the most familiar beasts of this ilk. They serve no known purpose, unless detracting from the point or driving the discerning listener to distraction can be construed as a purpose. One should avoid them altogether.
My high school-aged sons are tired of my telling them that the word “like,” for example, can be usefully employed as a verb signifying fondness (“I like ice-cream”), or as an adjective expressing similarity (“Some cats behave like dogs”), or as a conjunction or adverb in certain other precise and highly targeted ways. Beyond that, drop it.
I’m hoping the repetitive lesson sticks in the end.
The problem comes when one uses the word loosely and inexactly. (“It’s like a mile.”) At that point, one risks sliding down the slippery slope toward what used to be called valley speak where I come from. “It’s like, you know, um, like wow.”
Watch out! Spout off anything of the sort as an adult and you’ll convey an unintended message about who you are, how you think, and what you know. And people who could matter in the cold, cruel world might judge you harshly. I know I will.
NO, PLEASE, NOT “IN TERMS OF!”
With this backdrop (my credentials as a proud if unofficial member of the verbal class now firmly established), I have found that certain imprecise and sloppily-used filler-like words or phrases grate with an acute kind of vengeance.
To me, the king of the current crop is, you guessed it, “in terms of.” And the phrase is only current in the sense that it has persisted through a generation and remained stubbornly prevalent to this day. I had the same reaction over 30 years ago while in college, where I began to hear “in terms of” all the time. I shrugged off my reaction at first, thinking it was connected to the context — a time and place of experimental transition toward adulthood, when young people (I was one) try out new things, including big, shiny and impressive-sounding words and phrases, to see what works.
But I can’t shrug it off anymore. Because it ain’t just the kids and it never was.
Part of the problem is that, like the word “like,” the phrase “in terms of” can sometimes be put to perfectly appropriate use. To frame or translate one thing in terms of another — a second thing that is more accessible, familiar, or potentially alive in the mind of a listener or reader — can serve a valuable purpose: “She conveyed the cost of living in Latvia in terms of U.S. dollars rather than in the local currency for the sake of her readers.” Little wrong with that (although you may choose to drop the “terms of” without great loss.) Or to point out a parallel or equivalency between two seemingly different things, the phrase can also come in handy: “He calculated time in terms of money, betraying a characteristically American approach to daily life that was not necessarily shared by his Mexican partner.” That works too, its meaning immediately clear.
I should pause here to say that I have no gripe with “in…terms” used as an adverb phrase. As in: “He spoke of the dancer’s performance in positively glowing terms.” That’s perfectly fine, and does not seem prone to overuse.
It’s the three words strung together in a kind of hazy, catch-all conjunction or connector that get my goad: “…in — terms — of…”
Maybe that’s because the instances in which it makes sense to frame or translate one thing in terms of another don’t come up that often. So the phrase should be used sparingly.
SOME ILLUSTRIOUS EXAMPLES
Yet one hears “in terms of” all the time. In this case the slippery slope is precipitous, and the plunge usually takes place on first use. Several illustrious examples:
“Have you considered what you might do in terms of your required course load this semester?”
“In terms of the kind of person we’re seeking to fill this position, someone hardworking who gets along with others and has a BA in English plus five years experience for starters.”
“The doctor underscored the importance of a balanced diet and daily exercise in terms of improving her patient’s overall health.”
I choose these examples half at random, pulled from fragments of overheard conversation and off the top of my head. And there are many, many more where those came from. Perfectly plausible, commonplace and inoffensive, what could possibly be wrong with them?
I suppose the excessive use of any word or phrase — whatever it happens to be — necessarily suggests misuse, a lazy and disproportionate dependence on a given verbal crutch. That may be part of the problem here. But there’s more. The fact that the phrase tends neither to add nor to clarify meaning — and often does the opposite — argues for decisive editorial intervention; that is, for its replacement, removal, or even for the re-engineering and recasting of the entire sentence.
One way to resolve the problem is by experimenting with possible alternatives and choosing the one that works best. Let’s test it out with the examples above:
“Have you considered what you might do in terms of your required course load this semester?” In this sentence, removing the phrase outright leaves a gap, but a simple one word replacement works fine: “Have you considered what you might do about your required course load…?” In fact, replacing the phrase with one word such as “about” or “regarding” is often the easiest way to reduce the disproportionate dependence on “in terms of” in writing or conversation.
“In terms of the kind of person we’re seeking to fill this position, someone hardworking who gets along with others and has a BA in English plus five years experience for starters.” Here the solution is simpler still. Because as is often the case, the phrase is doing nothing other than taking up space. So get rid of it, and rearrange the furniture slightly after that: “We’re seeking someone hardworking who gets along with others…to fill this position.” Simple deletion is a perfectly sound and often more satisfying way of dealing with the insidious proliferation of “in terms of.”
“The doctor highlighted the importance of a balanced diet and daily exercise in terms of improving her patient’s overall health.” In this case, the more obvious solutions of replacement or deletion seem unavailable, in part because it is unclear what the phrase aims to do in the first place. My own first guess would be that it seeks to express the general idea of connection. If so, in the absence of an appropriate single-word substitute, it should probably be replaced by a phrase that makes that idea more explicit, such as “in connection with” or “in the context of.” (“The doctor highlighted the importance of a balanced diet and daily exercise in connection with improving her patient’s overall health.”) Better perhaps, but far from perfect. Why? Because the nature of the intended connection remains vague and unclear. What if the phrase was intended to establish a causal link between the one thing and the other? (“The doctor highlighted the importance of a balanced diet and daily exercise as a means of improving her patient’s health.”)
This latter example highlights the deeper problem with “in terms of”: in its most prevalent uses, the phrase is born of conceptual confusion. Because we haven’t figured out what we really want to say, because we don’t know what we really mean, because we haven’t quite grasped how the one thing relates to the other, we lazily toss out a phrase suggesting a vague and general connection to paper over that fact. And we do it again and again.
As a result, the presence of “in terms of” often suggests a need to reformulate, and to recast the sentence altogether: “To improve her patient’s health, the doctor recommended maintaining a balanced diet and a daily exercise regimen as an important first step.” There.
COULD IT BE IT PRETENDS TO BE SOMETHING IT’S NOT?
While it accounts for a lot, the original sin of conceptual confusion can’t quite explain the depth of my aversion. For one, I can’t fault folks for not knowing exactly what they mean all the time. Few people do. I sure don’t. The process of writing and rewriting, for example, is one of continually closing in on that intended target, which often remains frustratingly elusive. Moreover, when speaking off the cuff, without notes or a prepared text, finding the right way to say it — the mot juste or the right phrase — is more difficult still. Using a verbal crutch from time to time is a fault easily forgiven.
So what is it about the phrase, and how can I be sure my reaction is no mere matter of personal distaste? I noted earlier that I first encountered the phrase echoing endlessly in the rolling halls of academe. And today, it is in professional settings that I most often hear it overused, generally by sophisticated people with advanced degrees. So it strikes me that the phrase enjoys a kind of professional, even academic cache. People tend to use it when they want to be taken seriously, when they’re making an important point, or when they’re seeking to come across as intellectually rigorous and thoughtful.
The irony of it!
The phrase successfully masquerades as highbrow, seeming to project an aura of serious intent, of professional competence, and even of academic rigor, while actually doing the opposite. In fact, on closer analysis, it conceals the conceptual confusion from which it was born, transforms it into a simple-sounding catch-all connector, and then transmits the package into the world as a kind of slow-release verbal fog, clouding everything in sight.
The phrase is the linguistic equivalent of a poser, a fraud, full of noise and puffery, signifying nothing.
So I say, when facing the temptation of “in terms of” at work or school or wherever you happen to be, unless you know exactly why you’re using it and what you really mean, replace it, remove it or, better yet, recast your entire sentence instead.
To paraphrase the conductor of our college choir warning his rookie singers about the danger of diphthongs in song (which muddle the all important clarity of the single vowel), I say “eschew in terms of!”