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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.