Right, Wrong, and Relative.

In my dual capacity as linguist (manqué) and copyeditor (retired), I have often had occasion to ruminate here and elsewhere on the tensions involved in trying to correct copy to be printed while not actually believing in traditional concepts of what’s “correct.” Jonathon Owen, a linguist/editor who blogs at Arrant Pedantry (“Examining language rules and where they come from”), has a post that expresses my feelings on the subject perhaps better than I’ve ever done:

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.

He goes on to discuss the question “What makes a particular usage correct?” and to say “I don’t believe it’s possible to come up with any reliable test for deciding which rules to enforce and which to abandon,” ending with this passage:

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.

I agree with him on all points, and I fear I would have eventually (reluctantly, with gnashing of teeth) made the same decision.


  1. I’ve been told never to use “therefore” in fiction writing, or in anything to do with style, because it’s a hobnail boot of a word, confined to symbolic logic and the realm of a priori thinking. The professor who said this was brilliant on Joyce and the Wasteland, but he didn’t last long at my college, and I’d rejoice to be liberated. Not that I’d use “therefore” a lot. It carries a lot of weight and isn’t commonly spoken at the kind of parties I go to.

    But the “as such” people are almost the same as “qua” people, and that’s just shuddersome.

  2. I’ve never noticed this use of “as such” before, but I don’t find it bad or sloppy. It seems like a nice piece of verbal art, “As such, …” = “As the above is true, …”

    In general, though, the question of correctness vs. personal preference is indeed subtle and takes some thinking.

  3. Years ago, when I was an editor at a weekly science magazine, I would insist that ‘like’ and ‘such as’ were not interchangeable, and would patiently explain the difference to the bemused writers. Eventually it got to the point that I could no longer convince myself there was a substantial difference, and I abandoned the struggle.

    To this day, though, it irks me that the introduction to PBS shows, when they acknowledge the various sources of financial support, finishes with thanks to ‘viewers like you.’ No, no, comes a voice from some deeply buried part of my brain; it should be viewers such as you.

    I find the free-floating use of ‘as such’ bothersome, but now I am also retired and try to let it go. Not happily.

  4. MWDEU hasnt been revised since 1989 and its entry on “as such” only discusses use of “such as” ‘meaninglessly’; it says nothing about use in the sense “therefore”. Was that new enough in 1989 not to have come to the attention of peevers?

    There is also an entry on “such as”, but nothing about “not as such”.

  5. David Marjanović says

    When I review a manuscript, I still tell people to change free-floating as such because not everybody in the international audience is familiar with it; asking “as what?” will slow readers down, and avoiding that is the main goal of scientific writing. I first noticed it a year or two ago.

    Really too bad that thus is such a highfalutin word in English. It’s so useful!

  6. Was that new enough in 1989 not to have come to the attention of peevers?

    Quite possibly; my sense (unreliable as it is) is that I only started noticing it after that.

  7. This happens to me quite regularly these days (I’m in the same demographic that you are). For example I started noticing people saying “…a couple things…”, including in (online) print in well-edited publications.

    That startled me because I would always say “…a couple of things…”. So for a while I characterized “…a couple things…” wrong, and then as an annoying neologism. But then I realized that “…a dozen eggs…” is perfectly normal and doesn’t require “of”, so why should “couple” require “of”?

    Now I’m fine with it, although I’m sure I’ll continue to use the “couple of” form myself.

  8. Yup, I went through the same evolution.

  9. I agree with languagehat that the new “as such” is probably too recent to have been entered in the 1989 MWDEU; it’s not in the 2002 Concise edition either. But by his Second Edition, 2003, Bryan Garner has zeroed in on it:

    “Some writers faddishly use ‘as such’ as if it meant ‘thus’ or ‘therefore.’… This misuse is perhaps a SLIPSHOD EXTENSION from correct sentences such as the following, in which ‘icon’ is the antecedent of ‘such,’ but the sentence could be misread in such a way that ‘as such’ would mean ‘therefore’: ‘She will become an icon; “as such,” she will be a role model for years to come.'”

    Oddly, I first noticed the new usage in the prose of actual linguist John McWhorter. I have a faint memory that Garner actually called him out by name on this, but I could be wrong. It’s very disorienting to read at first, as Jonathon Owen says, but not as much (for me) as the abandonment of “might” (for “may) in counterfactuals. But we die out, and language marches on without us …

  10. You’re remembering right about Garner and McWhorter, Jan. It’s towards the end of his essay “The Ongoing Tumult in English Usage” in the fourth edition (or “The Ongoing Struggles of Garlic-Hangers” in the third):

    As for McWhorter’s own English, he has his lapses. For example, he is addicted to as such in the sense of “therefore.”

    He then refers to it as a “wretched new misusage.”

  11. but not as much (for me) as the abandonment of “might” (for “may) in counterfactuals.

    Oh man, that is the worst. I will go to my grave muttering about it.

  12. Bathrobe says

    I’m not sure that I’ve been sensitised to this one. Meaning, I might not be that attuned to “correct” and “incorrect” usage. So I found this explanation, which made sense. Incidentally, the article notes the claim that this incorrect usage can be traced back to the 18th century.

    I wonder whether this is totally a case of “as such” being adopted as a fine-sounding synonym of “therefore”. It could conceivably have been influenced by the expression “such being the case”, which is another way of saying “this being the case”. Here “this” has sentential rather than nominal reference (similar to “which being the case”). Could this have led people to treat “as such” as another way of saying “this being the situation”?

    I think I might use “may” instead of “might”, and it’s part of my native usage; that is, I was brought up with it. Perhaps it is dialectal.

  13. Bathrobe says

    Come to think of it, I don’t use “may” in counterfactuals.

  14. “As such” meaning “therefore,” previously.

    In the intervening six years, I still haven’t noticed this usage much, if at all.

  15. Come to think of it, I don’t use “may” in counterfactuals.

    Which is the use under discussion. If you don’t use or accept “He may have caught the ball [if he had tried harder],” we are as one on this issue.

  16. Some irrealises are irrer than others.

  17. He may have caught the ball [if he had tried harder]

    Oh, but no one would say or write that. What Kids These Days say is …if he would have tried harder.

    While we’re making our way through the pet peeve menagerie, I note that the use of reticent to mean “reluctant” has now reached the front page of the New York Times: “Mr. Biden’s language reflected reticence by world leaders to criticize Israel”.

  18. Robert W. M. Greaves says

    I am still struggling with ‘so fun’ rather than ‘such fun’.

  19. Bathrobe says

    if he would have tried harder

    I don’t think that is confined to kids.

    And there is the colloquial If he hadda tried harder, which would normally be interpreted as if he had have tried harder. But I don’t think it would be interpreted that way; it’s just a pleonastic a inserted after had (for euphonic purposes?).

  20. @TR: The OED‘s first citation for that sense of reticent is from an 1875 Congressional Committee report about the situation in the Reconstruction south: “The State registrar was just as reticent to give us information.” Usages like this (or the New York Times‘ “Mr. Biden’s language reflected reticence by world leaders to criticize Israel”) feel fine to me—because “reticent” is being used to mean “reluctant” on a matter of expression or communication. On the other hand, the next OED attestation, from 1932, sounds somewhat less appealing to me: “They were reticent about leaving it.”

  21. I reluct to retice about it.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    “Reticent” for “reluctant” comes from not knowing Latin, which is the source of all our problems in the world today.
    All English words derived from Latin must be used in the sense of the original Latin. Those who do otherwise are simply obnoxious to the Zeitgeist, and it is mere ingenuity to suggest otherwise.

    La lutte continue.

  23. David Marjanović says

    I first noticed it a year or two ago.

    And yet I commented on the other thread six years ago, where moreover the OED is said to have citations back to 1915 for it.

    Probably I really hadn’t encountered it and promptly forgot about it.


    As it happens, that means “crazier” in German.

  24. John Emerson says

    What I see a lot is “refute” to just mean “reject” or “deny”. To me a refutation requires a definitive opposing argument, but I often see refutation asserted with no argument at all.

  25. Oh, but no one would say or write that. What Kids These Days say is …if he would have tried harder.

    Sure, but the phrase in brackets was not meant to be part of what was said, just the semantic context.

  26. I often see refutation asserted with no argument at all.

    And without anyone having futed in the first place!

  27. To be a bit more serious, the OED takes that sense back to 1886:

    5. transitive. To reject (an allegation, assertion, report, etc.) as without foundation; to repudiate.
    Criticized as erroneous in usage guides in the 20th cent. In many instances it is unclear whether there is an implication of argument accompanying the assertion that something is baseless (making the use sense 2).

    1886 Money 22 Dec. 911/1 Mind, i ain’t a snob; I utterly refute that idear. I don’t judge bi the koat he wares, or the joolery, or nothing of that kind.
    1895 Manitoba Morning Free Press 13 Jan. 11/5 Members wish to refute the assertions..that Hayes council ‘is on its last legs’. Never in the history of the council was it in better shape.
    1942 C. Headlam Diary 8 July in S. Ball Parl. & Politics in Age Churchill & Attlee (1999) ix. 325 Dorman Smith, Governor of Burma..utterly refuted the gossip that the Burmese had welcomed the Japanese.
    1980 Bookseller 19 July 257/1 I refute Mr Bodey’s allegation that it is our policy not to observe publication dates.
    2006 Arizona Daily Star (Nexis) 12 July Bernice..refuted a magazine report in which her son said he preferred the University of Miami (Fla.) over the Wildcats.

  28. Bathrobe says

    Chinese government and media are notorious for using “refute” this way in English. No grounds are ever given; they basically seem to think that denying something is all the proof that anyone would need. It actually makes them look bad. Every time some criticism is made they simply “refute” it.

    It appears to be a translation of 反驳 fǎnbó, but even in Chinese that implies giving some kind of proof or evidence.

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    “Refute” for “deny” was very common in the UK up until a few years ago, where there was a noticeable change over quite a short period: someone must have peeved in the right ear. Unfortunately the preferred substitute has usually been “reject”*, plonked in place of “refute” with no change to the construction, so that allegations now get “rejected” all the time, which is not really the same thing as “denied”, which is presumably what the government spokesthing is actually struggling to express. On the other hand, maybe they do really mean to imply that the government is metaphorically holding its metaphorical hands over its metaphorical ears, metaphorically going “La la la! I can’t hear you!”

    Naturally the Chinese government sees no need to change the Ancient Ways. They also have a different approach to peevers, involving curing the peever rather than removing the supposed cause of peeving. I dare say that this may be more efficient.

    Chess boffins seem to use “refute” as a technical term to mean “show that a line of play doesn’t work.” The usage would irritate me by its preciousness if I actually read much chess commentary.

    * I presume “rebut” was felt to be too liable to lead to sniggering at the back.

  30. curing the peever

    How does this work? (Asking for a friend.)

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    Reeducation is the key. It consists of vocational training, and equips the peever to be a useful contributor to society.

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    I defer to David E. as to recent changes Over There, but in my experience “refute” meaning nothing more than “deny” is very much a UK-ism. I first noticed it in the mid-to-late 1990’s, when my then-colleagues and I were frequently working with posh London solicitors on a series of matters with trans-Atlantic implications and they kept using “refute” in this sense, which consistently puzzled us NYC lawyers, whose instinctive response was more or less “you don’t refute something just by denying it! You have convince a judge or jury that your evidence is more persuasive than that supporting the allegation!”

    I have definitely noticed the deprecated sense of “as such” in the writing of (typically younger than me?) NYC lawyers, but have not succumbed to it in my own writing.

  33. January First-of-May says

    I’d have to check my actual usage to confirm (or not), but from what I can recall, I tend to think of “as such” as meaning something like “given the above” – i.e. “such” refers to the entire previously described situation.

    I don’t really use “therefore” (too highfaluting for my style), but I do occasionally use “thus”, which as far as I can tell means the exact same thing; my (again, vague and unchecked) impression is that for me “thus” implies something close to an actual implication (or, at least, direct consequence) – e.g. I might use it in a proof – while “as such” is weaker and can be used in less blatant cases.

    Out of the two sentences in Bathrobe’s link, a) bothers me a lot more than b) does [despite the article suggesting otherwise]; for “therefore” (or “thus”) I’d expect a clearer implication than that.

  34. Such as a pronoun is close to being dead and I would wager that most young people never come across it and would be puzzled by it if they did. And if you don’t understand that the such in as such is a pronoun and requires a referent, it has no literal meaning and is just a bit of connective filler – it gives the appearance of a logical relationship between two sentences or phrases without expressing any such thing. It doesn’t mean therefore or thus or consequently. It doesn’t mean indeed or moreover. It doesn’t mean however or nevertheless. It’s just air.
    I don’t mind it when words evolve new meanings. But I do mind it when a word or phrase that means something evolves into meaninglessness.

    I have more than once explained to young lawyers what “as such” means. Some get it, most don’t.

  35. Kristian says

    Well, I’m apparently part of that international audience David Marjanović refers to, since even though I grew up in the United States and English is my best language, I live in Europe and I have never consciously come across “as such” meaning “therefore”. It seems like nonsense to me, could someone really write, e.g. “There are many reasons people become terrorists. As such, we must try not to make assumptions”?

  36. PlasticPaddy says

    There is a usage where “as such” is used to mean “per se” or “particularly”, e.g., “I do not like him/members of the legal profession, as such.” This may be peculiar to Ireland, as such. But not (quite) meaningless, as such.

  37. @Paddy – I can confirm that this usage is not limited to Ireland, I have often encountered it and use it myself.

  38. David Marjanović says

    What I see a lot is “refute” to just mean “reject” or “deny”.


    they basically seem to think that denying something is all the proof that anyone would need.

    It was a very strong and powerful denial.

    Such as a pronoun is close to being dead and I would wager that most young people never come across it and would be puzzled by it if they did.

    Oh, that’s an interesting idea. And quite possibly true.

    could someone really write

    Yes, that’s practically identical to examples I’ve seen.

    “per se”

    Oh yeah, that’s widespread, being almost a literal translation.

  39. @Kristian, yes, that kind of thing is exactly what people write. I see it in essays all the time.

  40. An “as such” meaning “thus”/”therefore”/”that being the case” spotted in the wild today — from an English lawyer, as it happens: https://twitter.com/davidallengreen/status/1394571117755518982

  41. John Emerson says

    I first heard “refute” to mean “deny” or “reject” before 1986 in the US, from a semiliterate but very argumentative youth basketball coach. It bugged me enough that I remember the occasion.

  42. @PlasticPaddy — “as such” meaning “per se” or “particularly” is something I rarely meet, unless you count “not as such” meaning “not exactly”.

  43. I can confirm that this usage is not limited to Ireland,

    It is literary European.
    Я не имею ничего против Х как такового…
    Я — редактор. Как таковой, я исправляю bad writing*.

    *has not been borrowed into Russian yet.

  44. I don’t think we already discussed this usage of “as such”: Jasper Fforde The constant rabbit, “After prevaricating all afternoon on which Labstock names I should send down to Mr Ffoxe, I selected four who were already dead or long missing — but wouldn’t be readily apparent as such.” Dinner & Dandelion Brandy, first sentence
    As far as I understand, this is not a sentence level adjunct, neither a pronoun, it is a “proverb” (oops, the word is taken) “such” = “already dead or long missing”.

  45. PlasticPaddy says

    “Your” paper????
    “When I started… we’d stand up and say, ‘…just say “Jim, you’ve lost your touch, you’ve just lost your energy. Get rid of me” as such,’ ”
    Jim Gavin is from Dublin (although his da was from Clare), so perhaps that explains it…I agree this is not per se or particularly, more like “go ahead and” or “just”

  46. @D.O.: That would actually be a “proadjectve,” I think, since “already dead or long missing” is a (compound) adjectival modifier. Both parts of the compound are derived from verbs, of course, although via different mechanisms.

  47. Ok, I can live with that. This shows a bit of difficulty with “part of speech” concept in English. I have downloaded a copy of CGEL, but too lazy to see what they think of it. Pullum was very much against calling gerund a noun, but certainly he would admit that in “Running is a great exercise. It is also not much of a fun.” It is pronoun though Running is not a noun.

  48. To this day, though, it irks me that the introduction to PBS shows, when they acknowledge the various sources of financial support, finishes with thanks to ‘viewers like you.’ No, no, comes a voice from some deeply buried part of my brain; it should be viewers such as you.

    No, because I, like most viewers, am not providing financial support. So it’s actually a subtle way of inspiring guilt. „People like you, of a similar socio-economic background, are providing us with support, what’s wrong with you?“.

  49. @Vanya: Public television messages of thanks can go either way. “Viewers like you” on its own does sound like it is suggesting that “you” might or might not actually be among those who contribute. However, it is (or was) often followed up with a, “Thank you,” that actually seems to be addressed directly to the viewer. Another common formula was that the following program was “made possible by [various corporate underwriters]; and by You, the contributing members of [whatever station or group of stations].”

  50. David Marjanović says

    It is literary European.

    comme tel(-)
    als solch-

  51. @D.O.: That would actually be a “proadjectve,”
    In classical grammar, “pronouns” can stand in for both nouns and adjectives – the Latin was pronomen, and nouns and adjectives were both nomina (nomen substantivum and nomen adiectivum). Traditional German school grammar still has Nomen as category, and “noun” is Substantiv (or Hauptwort in nativised terminology).

  52. David Marjanović says

    That appears to have changed some 40 years ago, but I was still exposed to Substantiv & Hauptwort.

  53. Substantiv & Hauptwort sounds like the German equivalent of Starsky & Hutch.

  54. Bathrobe says

    According to Wikipedia, Das Substantiv, deutsch auch Hauptwort, Dingwort, Gegenstandwort oder Namenwort….

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    Substantiv & Hauptwort.

    One is a Roman and one is a German. Together, They Fight Crime!


  56. And Dingwort is a wildflower whose leaves can be added to a poultice to soothe minor abrasions.

  57. i wonder if “refute” for “deny” has some entanglement with “rebut”, which i sometimes hear used interchangably with it. to my semantic ear, rebuttal sits in between (proper) refutation and denial, but has less of an implication of containing a strong or coherent argument.

  58. @rozele: I was also thinking about the possible significance of rebut, along just the same lines.

  59. David Marjanović says

    Also repudiate, as demonstrated with the Palin quote above.

    (Or was that Tina Fey again…)

  60. Phil Jennings and David Marjanović –
    Often, in briefs, lawyers have to spend paragraphs and even pages writing what is in effect a chain of syllogisms, with an occasional pause to set out a fact or two. The therefores and thuses start to pile up and we become desperate for synonyms. Accordingly. Consequently. Necessarily. As a result. Often It’s in passages like this that “as such” creeps in. It’s wrong and I dislike it but I do have sympathy for the author.

  61. PlasticPaddy says

    Perhaps lawyers could learn from mathematicians and summarise long chains of (usually repetitive but conceptually uncomplicated) argument with “it can be seen that” or (if the writer is in a particularly foul mood) “it is a trivial consequence that”.

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