I Googled this phrase at 7:14 a.m. on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, and there were 517,000,000 hits. It’s a phrase or word like any other in English in that its meaning and use have changed over time. It’s also a phrase that I resolutely never use in my writing, not because I object to change in language – I accept and embrace it – but because the way it is generally used these days results in a sentence that is either lazily written or, at worst, even ambiguous.
For example, just to take one of those 517M hits:
Canadians and Americans have relaxed in terms of following COVID-19 safety measures.http://fopl.ca/news/leger-polls-canadians-and-americans-have-relaxed-in-terms-of-following-covid-19-safety-measures/
This is just lazy writing. The writer knows that Canadians and Americans are following COVID safety measures less stringently, and they want to link the two concepts – relaxed on the one hand, and COVID measures on the other – and has chosen the easiest go-to method of doing so: “in terms of.” There’s not really an ambiguity here: it’s just lacklustre and wordy. If you think about it for a minute, you can figure out that what they mean (or could have written) is “Canadians and Americans have relaxed their following of COVID-19 safety measures.”
There are cases though where the use of “in terms of” causes genuine ambiguity because it doesn’t specify enough the relationship between the two thoughts on either side of it. For example:
Talking in terms of the [housing] industry, salary represented approximately 15% of total compensation out of all the companies we analyzed, while other remuneration made up 85% of the pie.https://finance.yahoo.com/finance/news/heres-why-equity-lifestyle-properties-053951949.html
This is typical of how the expansion of the use of “in terms of” starts to produce sentences in which you kind of know what the writer is getting at, but when you examine the sentence it is not reliably accurate. This sentence, for example:
- It could (and probably is intended to) mean that in the housing industry, total compensation is made up of 15% salary and 85% other compensation.
- It could also (literally but unlikely) mean that if you use the terminology (“terms”) of the housing industry, then total compensation, etc. … And the added ambiguity is that the sentence could imply that terminology such as “total compensation” is used only in the housing industry.
Again, just lazy writing.
But it’s gotten even worse because “in terms of” has mutated like a certain kind of virus. You often hear it when people are speaking, formally or informally – especially when it’s not from a prepared script, or when they have two ideas that they want to link together but they’re not able to do so on the spot, or when they think they sound fancy by dressing up what they’re saying with a few extra words.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do in terms of a dress for Mary’s party.”
“We’ve got lukewarm interest so far in terms of people signing up for the seminar.”
“This glossary is coming along nicely in terms of terms.”
I had a look at the Oxford English Dictionary to see when this scourge started. It provides this definition …
… and cites the first work in which it was used in this sense as published in 1821! Voilà: “Contradictoriness … manifested, in terms of a certain degree of strength, towards some proposition or propositions, that have been advanced by some one else.”
So I was interested to see whether Sam Johnson used the phrase in that sense in any of his writings. Short answer: he does use the phrase, but not in that sense, at least for one of his major works. I did a keyword search through the entire text of all 208 Rambler essays (ah, how the luxury of an e-version so easily permits this). It is used only once, and not in the looser way as above: “All this, as I was no passionate lover, had little effect. She next refused to see me, and because I thought myself obliged to write in terms of distress, they had once hopes of starving me into measures.”
What about the dictionary of English that Sam himself published in 1755? Does it make any mention of “in terms of”? Do you have three more minutes to find out?