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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. Merriam-Webster 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 M-W 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.