You Could Look It Up

Q. What exactly does the phrase “in terms of” mean? I hear it used constantly, but try to avoid using it myself. I think it’s a trite phrase that doesn’t actually mean anything or have any purpose except to annoy me, actually. I know you’ve used it before, but what’s the best way to avoid using such a common phrase? I want to include it in my company’s style guide as a phrase not to use, and would like to offer an alternative. I’ve used “as far as” but I don’t like that either.

A. Dictionaries are good at answering questions about meanings. Webster’s 11th Collegiate says “in terms of” means “with respect to” or “in relation to” and gives the example “He thinks of everything in terms of money.” I know that sometimes we fixate on phrases that sound like just so much throat-clearing or blather, but we probably wouldn’t be comfortable either if everyone wrote and spoke with perfectly stripped-down precision. Although little transitions like “in terms of” might be eliminated or reduced to monosyllables, they can also add rhythm or just stall for time. In the Webster’s example, the phrase is doing honest work; I can’t think of a better way to express the point. It would be a shame to banish the phrase in your style book. I hope as a general policy you’ll keep the prohibitions to a minimum. Writers need flexibility to produce clear and elegant writing.