August 27, 2020

Right, Wrong, and Relative

A while ago at work, I ran into a common problem: trying to decide whether to stop editing out a usage I don’t like. In this case, it was a particular use of “as such” that was bothering me. To me, “as such” is a prepositional phrase, and “such” is a pronoun that must refer to some sort of noun or noun phrase, as in “I’m a copy editor; as such, I fix bad writing.” In this sentence, “such” refers to the noun phrase “a copy editor”; in other words, it means, “I’m a copy editor; as a copy editor, I fix bad writing.”

But most of the time when I encounter it nowadays, it’s simply used to mean “therefore” or “consequently” (for more on that, see this post I wrote several years ago for Visual Thesaurus). And when I encountered it on that day, I changed it, as I always had before. But this time, I kept thinking about what makes a usage right or wrong and how we as editors decide which rules to enforce and which ones to let slide.

“As such” may be a simple transitional adverb for most people, but I still reflexively look for a noun phrase for that “such” to refer to. And I do this even though I know I’m in the minority. I can look at the evidence and see that the shift has happened, but it hasn’t happened in my own mental grammar.

And I think this tells us a lot about why it’s so hard for us to change our minds about usage. Knowing that I’m in the minority hasn’t magically changed how the phrase works in my head. Some things are so habitual that it’s hard to root them out. And of course there’s more than a bit of snobbery at work too—the adverbial use of “as such” sounds less educated to me, so I don’t have much incentive to give up my meaning for the new one.

Sometimes editors insist that it’s our job to preserve older meanings and slow language change, but I don’t believe it is. Nobody hired us to preserve the language. We’ve simply been hired to fix errors and make text clear and readable. And anyway, changing “as such” to “therefore” might make me feel slightly less annoyed, but it’s not going to have any measurable impact on Standard English. Even if all the copy editors in the English-speaking world were to edit it out, it will likely continue to thrive in speech and unedited text. The rest of the language will keep marching on without us.

Some editors might say that even though usage is changing, the new meaning isn’t correct or accepted yet, as if there will come some point at which it becomes correct or accepted and then everything will magically change. But the question of what’s correct or accepted is much less clear than most people realize.

What makes a particular usage correct? Is it official sanction by usage commentators? Inclusion in a reputable dictionary or style guide? Usage by well-regarded writers or some other elites? A critical mass of popular usage? Some combination of the above? And even those questions raise other questions. What if one usage commentator accepts it and another doesn’t? How do you know if a dictionary or style guide is reputable? How many well-regarded writers need to use it, and for how long? How big a mass of popular usage do you need before you decide it’s a critical one? Is it a simple majority, or maybe 75 percent or 90 percent? Does it matter if the rule in question has some sort of history behind it or if it’s a pure invention? Does it matter if the allegedly incorrect usage arose from ignorance or by some other means? Does it matter how vociferously people object to the allegedly incorrect usage?

The questions go on and on. And my answer is that, honestly, I don’t believe it’s possible to come up with any reliable test for deciding which rules to enforce and which to abandon. Even if you can answer all of the questions above, there is no formula that you plug them into that will tell you what’s correct. And even though it’s sometimes said that language is the ultimate democracy, with every user casting a vote, the truth is that there isn’t really a vote either. Nobody ever tallies up the numbers and declares a winner.

That is, the answer is that there is no answer.

This doesn’t stop people from trying to come up with answers, of course. The American Heritage Dictionary had its usage panel, but that was just an opinion poll of mostly older, mostly male, and mostly white scholars and writers. Some usage dictionaries have relied on corpus data to find out what actual usage is, though finding out what usage is doesn’t tell us which usage is right. Bryan Garner gives some first principles in his usage dictionary, but they’re not true first principles—they’re inconsistently applied and occasionally contradict each other, so it often feels like they’re applied after the fact to justify the desired judgment.

This is one reason why I love Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage so much. It mostly doesn’t attempt to declare what’s right and wrong. It basically says, “Here’s how this word has been used, and here’s what people have said about it; now make up your own mind.” It embraces the relativity.

A lot of editors find that approach frustrating because they just want to know if they should leave the word or phrase in question or change it, but I find it refreshing. It doesn’t try to pretend that there are objective answers to questions of opinion. That is, when you’re asking if you should accept a usage, you’re not asking a question that can be answered with facts.

Is it good to know what people’s opinions on usage are? Absolutely. But opinions can’t tell me what I should do. They can’t tell me whether I should accept “as such” to mean “therefore” or whether I should keep editing it out at work. Ultimately, I have to decide for myself what to do.

So the next time a new “as such” came across my desk, I made a decision: I let it go.

Usage 17 Replies to “Right, Wrong, and Relative”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


17 thoughts on “Right, Wrong, and Relative

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on that subject. I appreciate your candor. It helps me in facing similar decisions as a proofreader and copy editor.

    Author’s gravatar

    As an octagenarian, former lawyer, poet wannabe (like that?) and curmudgeon, I understand your resistance to neologisms. I had never seeen “as such” used to mean “therefore,” and it irritates. On the other hand, a lot of new acronyms come in handy. Especially, IMO and IMHO.

      Author’s gravatar

      You’ll probably notice this new use of “as such” everywhere now. Sorry about that.

    Author’s gravatar

    You make a lot of good points. I don’t think I’m quite ready to give up on eliminating that referent-less “as such,” but you’ve moved me a notch closer.

      Author’s gravatar

      I have to admit that even though I let it pass, I didn’t really feel happy about it.

    Author’s gravatar

    I was no longer editing (though still writing) when this spread widely, but I too would have struggled with it. Interestingly, the first place I saw A LOT of “as such” for “therefore” was in books by linguist John McWhorter.
    I would think you might treat it as a style question at anyplace with a stylebook; changing usages are often delayed that way (until they’re so common nobody thinks to consult the stylebook). But if I were editing an individual author, I might ask myself: Would he/she want to know this was a current usage issue? Some would, and you could probably tell from the writing.

      Author’s gravatar

      I think that was one of the first places where I really noticed that usage too. Garner took him to task for it in the front matter of his Modern American Usage, right after criticizing linguists for defending nonstandard varieties while writing in Standard English. I guess you lose either way.

      But I think you raise a good point—editing depends not just on what we guess our readers want but on your relationship with the author. Some might appreciate being alerted to a disputed usage, others might defend their usage, and still others might not care one way or the other and will leave it up to the editor.

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for your post. I think back to my high school and college French instructors who insisted upon using “le mot juste” when writing. As a retiree, I tutor high school students and I encourage them to think deliberately about the word choices that they make. My biggest challenge to date is a sixteen-year old who has ADHD, a language processing deficiency, and who was adopted from Eastern Europe seven years ago. His standard reply to corrections of the clarity/quality of his written work is, “Well, you know what I meant.” I do, usually. However, the same cannot be said for his Spanish, Social Studies, and English teachers at the local high school! ?

    Author’s gravatar

    Interesting progression of logic.

    I find the substitution of “therefore” for “as such” to not read the same as the original. Per your article, this is due to my not using it correctly in the first place (my first language was Italian and although I’ve used and spoken English for 55 years and rarely use Italian, I still find myself at odds with some accepted usage and sentence structures).

    But, for me, the two have different connotations (if that’s the correct word for it). To me, “therefore” seems to be more suitable at the end of a logical argument aimed at drawing a conclusion (this, and this and therefore, that).

    Whereas, again, for me, “as such” reads less authoritative (if that’s the correct word); more like an expression of how things are, a statement of fact.

    For example, these two sentences added to the above paragraph read differently (again, to me).

    1) As such, I’m more likely to use “therefore” when concluding an argument.
    2)Therefore, I’m more likely to use “therefore” when concluding an argument.

    #1 “sounds” more like what I want to say than #2 (and not just because I’m avoiding the repetition of the word “therefore”).

    I could write #2 as “Therefore, I’m more likely to use ‘as such’ when stating facts” and it still reads “wrong”, meaning I would replace “therefore” with “as such”.

    This could also be due to other factors like me being an engineer, loving a good debate, and being a fan of logic.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting read.

    Author’s gravatar

    There’s a lot of “old usage” I’m not willing to give up on as an editor, and here’s why: There are still many of us out there, mostly old ourselves but of course still deserving of respect, who cringe at recent language changes. Yet I doubt many younger people cringe at what we elders still consider correct usage. So why not edit to the old style, at least until the young’uns start complaining (if ever)? Will they really mind, for example, reading the phrase “with regard to” rather than “with regards to,” or “most important” rather than “most importantly”? I doubt it—at least that’s my argument for editing to what I (still) think of as being right.

      Author’s gravatar

      I think that is generally a reasonable approach. A “therefore” or “consequently” where the author originally had “as such” isn’t going to bother anyone. But there are also plenty of cases where the traditional rule may sound stilted or where we may actually annoy the author by imposing unnecessary rules on them. That is, the question of whether it will annoy someone isn’t always a simple or straightforward one. For example, split infinitives may still annoy some readers, but unsplit infinitives may sound stilted and incorrect to even more readers. No matter what choice you make, some people may be annoyed.

      And I want to be clear that I’m not saying that we should give up on “as such” or that we shouldn’t try to prevent our readers from cringing. I’m mostly saying that the fact that someone cringes at something doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.

    Author’s gravatar

    Interesting analysis. I’m 74 and used to seeing both usages. So the “new” one has been around for a long time.

    Author’s gravatar

    Well said! And I agree with you about _Garner’s_ and _Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage_. I want to understand the usage and its issues, so I can make the best decision for the copy in front of me. MWDEU lets me do that. I wish they’d update it! (I know what a pipe dream that is.)

    Author’s gravatar

    Good article. I see people commenting about whether the author will appreciate being corrected, and about whether the reader will be annoyed. But I don’t think anyone has mentioned what, for me, is the primary consideration: will the reader be confused (or, worse, misled) if the text in question is allowed to stand?

    This is why, after years of standing firm, I’ve given up on “beg the question.” I’m pretty sure that every reader, even philosophy majors, understands the modern usage for that phrase. So, even though a part of me still grimaces, I now let it go.

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece. I agree with you in your praise of M-W DOEU. It sets out the facts and leaves the reader to make their own decision.

    As regards ‘as such’, I have a feeling there are occasions when it doesn’t even roughly mean ‘therefore’ but is a sort of filler. I must listen out for them.

      Author’s gravatar

      Thanks, Jeremy. And you might be right that it’s not always exactly equivalent to “therefore”; an earlier commenter made the same argument. I’ll have to start watching for it too.

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