In terms of keyly core components of Guardianese, the dialect of those who read and write for The Guardian, Britain’s premier papyrocentric purveyor of progressive performativity, there can be little or no doubt that at the key core is the phrase I began this sentence with: “in terms of”. Arguably it is the keyliest corest component of all. It’s a bad sign if you use it even a little; if you use it a lot, it’s time to mend your ways. Siriusly. But whatever your own issues in terms of usage metrics for I.T.O., you’ll certainly hear this phrase a lot throughout the English-speaking world. In terms of communities / demographics like politics, academia and the media, it’s a kind of linguistic bindweed: a tough, fast-growing weed smothering everything in sight.
Unlike bindweed, however, it doesn’t produce beautiful flowers or grow in interesting ways. What’s wrong with “in terms of” was summed up very well by the Australian comedian and satirist Barry Humphries, the creator of Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson. He re-wrote the title of a famous film as One Flew Over In Terms of the Cuckoo’s Nest. “In terms of” is beloved of those who want long ways to say short things. Its use is usually unnecessary, never essential. As a keyly committed component of the core I.T.O.phobic community, I never use it except to take the piss of the Guardianista demographic. The mission statement of the Guardian might be “Purveying pretentious prose to pretentious people since 1959.” “In terms of” is corely key to this mission. The lexicographer Robert Burchfield discussed its origins in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996):
How did this complex preposition come into being? The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] reveals that it has been in use since the mid-18c. as a mathematical expression “said of a series… stated in terms involving some particular (my emphasis) quantity”, and illustrates this technical usage by citing examples from the work of Herbert Spencer (1862), J. F. W. Herschel (1866), and other writers. From this technical use came at first a trickle and, after the 1940s, a flood of imitative uses by non-mathematicians. (Op. cit., entry for “in terms of”).
I suggest that the flood of imitative uses was flattery. Mathematicians are highly intelligent and intellectually rigorous people. Non-mathematicans wanted to pretend to themselves that they were highly intelligent and intellectually rigorous too. “In terms of” lends a judicious, thoughtful air to one’s prose or speech. It’s a good way of disguising the absence of judgment or thought. This is one reason it’s so popular among politicians, who need ways to sound impressive and say little. Burchfield condemns its use as a “vague all-purpose connective” in politics and broadcasting, but concludes, after listing examples of I.T.O. in action, that it may be a “useful particularizing device” in general prose. He’s wrong. All his examples can be re-written to be better English:
The impact of Ibsen… did much to revitalize the degenerate English theatre and force it to think in terms of living ideas and contemporary realities. J. Mulgan and D. M. Davin, 1947. (My suggestion: …force it to use living ideas…)
Dataquest pegs ESRI as the leading GIS company—in terms of both revenue and reputation. Computer Graphics World, 1988. (Dataquest lists ESRI as… in both revenue and reputation)
He deals with the converso judaizing world in terms of its social and religious rituals, births, marriages, deaths, leading to the establishment of the Inquisition. The Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 1990. (…through its social and religious rituals…)
Rameau… conceived his music precisely in terms of timbres, types of attack, degree of sostenuto. Country Life, 1990. (…in timbre, type of attack…)
Justifying space in terms of material wealth is as ridiculous as saying that man went to the Moon merely to be able to return with velcro zips and non-stick frying pans. New Scientist, 1991. (…space [exploration] by its material benefits…)
The dating of his novels in terms of when they were written rather than when they were published is often uncertain, since in the upheavals of exile some were not published chronologically. New York Review of Books, 1991. (…his novels by when they were written…)
The re-writing makes them better English, but not necessarily good English. Writers who use “in terms of” are generally bad writers. That’s why I’m unsurprised to see The New York Review of Books in the list. Like its twin on this side of the Atlantic, The London Review of Books, its mission statement might be “Purveying Pathological Prose to Pathological People.” A core component of this pathology is “in terms of”. My reaction to I.T.O. is I.T.T.O.! In other words: It’s Time To Obliterate In Terms Of. This lexical bindweed doesn’t flower: pluck it out wherever you find it in your linguistic garden. I’ve allowed other weeds to spring up here and there in terms of issues around the prose of this polemic, but I do my best to keep my bad English deliberate.
Guardianistas and their equivalents overseas produce bad English the way cows produce methane: copiously and unconsciously. And the internet has allowed their bad English to billow forth as never before. Wikipedia, for example, is like an experimental farm on which they can fart all day and every day, polluting the English language in vibrant new ways. “In terms of” is keyly core to their methanogenic mission. I groan when I see it in Wikipedia articles about people like, say, Saki or Clark Ashton Smith. I grin when I see it in articles about people like, say, William S. Burroughs or Alan T. Moore. Some people deserve bad prose. Some people don’t. I hope you and your favourite writers are among the latter. Siriusly. “In terms of” sucks! “Sucks” sucks too! Just say no to I.T.O.!
Proviously post-posted (please peruse):