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"As Such" Is the New "Therefore"

Lately I've been noticing the phrase as such everywhere. It's not just a recency illusion; according to corpus data from the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) and Google Books Ngrams, it really is on the rise. And with that rise comes a shift in function and a corresponding effort to halt that shift. Traditionally, as such was a simple prepositional phrase with the pronoun such as the complement of the preposition as. As a pronoun, such refers to an earlier noun phrase, often in a previous sentence or clause. Bryan Garner, in his Modern American Usage, gives the following example of traditional usage: "She will become an icon; as such, she will be a role model for years to come." In this sentence, such refers to the noun icon, so the intended reading is "She will become an icon; as an icon, she will be a role model for years to come."

But, as Garner notes, some writers now use as such to mean simply thus or therefore. It's not hard to see why; in his example sentence, as such can easily be read as therefore with virtually no change in meaning: "She will become an icon; therefore, she will be a role model for years to come." In this example that I found on COHA, though, only the new therefore sense is possible: "But environmental groups contend the multiple authorizations were illegal because the city knew its operations at the course would imperil the species. As such, San Francisco must seek a long-term permit to manage the frog and snake populations, they say." Here, as such no longer functions as prepositional phrase with a pronoun referring to an earlier noun; it's simply a sort of transitional adverb connecting two sentences and indicating some sort of causation.

Garner calls this change (and others like it) a slipshod extension. I think his term is unnecessarily harsh, but it's easy enough to see what he means: when those unfamiliar with a word or phrase first encounter it, there's a chance that they will misapprehend its meaning. We don't typically learn words and phrases by formal instruction, after all; we see or hear them in context and have to puzzle out their meaning by inference as best we can. And in contexts like Garner's example sentence above, it's easy to overlook the particular grammatical role of such and perceive the phrase as a sort of fixed unit. Then, as people misunderstand the original meaning of the phrase, they begin to use it in the new sense, as in the example from COCA. Then people begin to encounter not just the traditional sense, which can be misunderstood to mean therefore, but the new sense, which can only be understood to mean therefore. The signal is strengthened, and the change spreads throughout the language. It seems to be a fairly new change, too, or at least one that has flown under the radar of some usage writers; Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage makes no mention of it.

I'll confess that I'm not fond of this new meaning. I find myself asking "As what?" when I come across instances of "as such" while reading. Increasingly often, there's no answer. But I also recognize that changes such as these are inevitable and inexorable. After all, this is far from the first time that a word or phrase has been reduced to a piece of grammar, doing little more than linking two sentences together: the same thing happened to therefore centuries ago. The compound therefore originally meant for that or for that reason; that is, it was equivalent to a prepositional phrase with a pronoun, referring to something in a previous phrase or clause. Eventually it came to mean simply consequently, though there are occasionally still vestiges of the pronominal sense, as in this example from the Oxford English Dictionary dating to 1848: "Tell Briggs that his ticket came safely and that I am thankful therefor." The referent of therefore (ignore the spelling variation) is still apparent: he is thankful for Briggs's ticket.

Maybe some English speakers of the 1400s were annoyed by the new, looser sense of therefore, but their annoyance didn't stop it from spreading and becoming standard. And as Ben Zimmer noted in a recent interview, "Writers on usage are very often playing catch-up with changes that have already happened rather than holding the line against some linguistic tide, Canute-style." Even though Garner and others may oppose the new sense of as such, it's already too late to stop it. In a few decades, people will scratch their heads at our objections, and in a few centuries, they will have forgotten them completely. As such, maybe I should learn to loosen up a bit.


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Jonathon Owen is a copy editor and book designer with a master's degree in linguistics from Brigham Young University. His thesis explores the role of copyediting in regulating English usage, and he holds the paradoxical view that it's possible to be a prescriptivist and descriptivist simultaneously. He writes about usage, editing, and linguistics at arrantpedantry.com, and he also writes a column on grammar for Copyediting newsletter. In his free time he likes to play Scrabble and design word-nerdy t-shirts. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArrantPedantry Click here to read more articles by Jonathon Owen.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 15th 2013, 1:45 AM
Comment by: alicia Zubay (sugar land, TX)
i think this tendency is unfortunate in the sense that it diminishes the richness of the language by disregarding the difference in nuance and meaning in the different words. We end up with a lot of different words that convey the same meaning, without the nuance.
It is a shame.
Tuesday October 15th 2013, 3:57 AM
Comment by: Frederick E.
Hi Jonathan, you "begin" to accept that Language is alive and forever evolving, as such one has to allow the flow to take it's course. To Alicia, I am SO HAPPY we do not speak the same day to day English as spoken during the 1400s.
Nuances are often different between the speaker's intention and the hearer's perception, so?
Regards, vive le Thesaurus.
Tuesday October 15th 2013, 9:13 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
Personally, I don't like it. I think it's stupid. My opinion isn't going matter a bit, so maybe I'd better learn to like it. What was the name of the king who went down trying to fight the rising tide? Canute, wasn't it?
Tuesday October 15th 2013, 3:28 PM
Comment by: Craig J. (Mundelein, IL)
Language reaches its highest purpose and greatest usefulness when meaning is communicated clearly between the speaker (or writer)and the listener (or reader). I have heard illiterates reading text aloud to the fatal injury of meaning. The same thing is accomplished by the nominally literate when they become too lazy or too puffed up to bother registering the author's clear intent. Lax construction and tortured understanding have their natural haunts: the tavern; the sports event; the propagandists labors; an English teacher's self-impressed, avant-garde lecture. Linguistic ambiguity is part of our humanity, and as such is unavoidable. But avarice, dishonesty, and sloth are also part of our humanity; does that mean we should consciously encourage them, and the faulty use of language as well? We can't all sling the lingo like William F. Buckley did, but we can still do our bit for clear communication as we ride the rising tide.
Wednesday October 16th 2013, 4:05 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, thank you, Jonathon, for presenting this topic. I have noticed the increasing abuse of "as such" recently, and I mentally gag every time I hear it or read it. Like most grammatical blunders, it is very distracting; whatever the speaker or writer was trying to say is obscured by the clumsy way they said it.

"As such", used correctly, provides precision, clarity and a touch of class. To those who misuse the phrase - come on, people. If you want to pound a wooden stake into the ground, and you need something hard and heavy and easy to hold onto, and you don't have a hammer and you don't see a rock handy, please ... don't use a camera.

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday October 16th 2013, 9:07 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
I find these laments funny. Once a language is frozen it dies. Nobody wants to use fossilized language elegant or not.

English usage has grown because it is the mutt of languages not the elegant thoroughbred designed to fashionably trot for every linguists sensual pleasure.

Craig, I always thought Buckley's claim to fame was obfuscation thru boredom not clarity thru insight.
Thursday October 17th 2013, 12:52 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Frederick E. and Mike H., thank you for so eloquently expressing an opinion very different from mine. This is what I love about the V.T. Community - we can invite each other to "come on over here and look at it from where I'm standing"! Your words really do help ease the pain of hearing words twisted, torn and mangled. I'm going to memorize the beautiful sentence/paragraph about English being the mutt of languages, and the next time I'm muttering and sputtering over yet another grammatically incorrect abomination, I'm going to recite those words to myself over and over until I calm down. Thanks - I needed that!

The Happy Quibbler
Friday October 18th 2013, 5:11 AM
Comment by: Frederick E.
To Kristine F and all else,
it is a joy "quibbling" with fellow readers, I am a propagandist for "live" language development, but also hate mutilation for the sake of being 'different' or just plain obnoxious.
Quibble forth while Nero fiddles (lyres?).
Regards
Frederick

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