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Academic Writing as Such

I am being a stick-in-the-mud about the phrase as such, and I have decided I need to change my ways.

As the graduate students whose dissertations I have been reading over the past few weeks will attest, I have been underlining many — but not all — of their uses of as such. Finally one of them asked me what the problem was. She said, “I’m thinking perhaps I don’t know how to use this phrase.”

Or perhaps she knows exactly what this phrase means to many of her readers and I am just behind the times.

Here is an example from a recent dissertation of an as such that I left untouched, given that it is used the way I would use it:

[This scholar] argues that Christianity has become, for many college students, little more than a restrictive moral code, and as such, has earned a bad name.

In this sentence, the pronoun such has a clear antecedent (“a restrictive moral code”) and the prepositional phrase as such accords with the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition: “As being what the name or description implies; in that capacity.”

Here is an example of as such from the same dissertation that I underlined:

[The organization] encourages students to acknowledge where their own lives challenge Christian belief, and as such, these students are unlikely to fear such representation in academically oriented texts.

As such in this sentence seems to be synonymous with therefore or consequently. As a reader, I find myself searching for the antecedent of such, and given that I cannot find one, the sentences feels out of kilter. To me.

I am far from the first to notice this use of as such to mean therefore. A quick search online turned up several queries to grammar forums about whether this use is acceptable. Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman addressed it on their blog Grammarphobia in 2010. They provide a useful history of the phrase, starting with its 17th-century origins and explaining how ambiguity played a role in the reinterpretation of the phrase in the 18th century — at least by some speakers — to mean therefore. As they note, the OED describes this newer use of as such as colloquial and vulgar (in the sense of unrefined). (I do want to note that this OED entry has not been fully updated since its original publication in 1915.) O’Conner and Kellerman conclude: “A sentence shouldn’t include the phrase as such unless there’s an antecedent that answers the question as what?

Bryan Garner criticizes this “slipshod extension” of as such in his Modern American Usage, and Jonathon Owen provides a thoughtful counter in a 2013 blog post on Visual Thesaurus. Owen is also not a fan, but he judiciously recognizes that these kinds of changes happen. He writes:

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.

In the end (or as such), he describes himself as in the same boat that I am: wondering if he should loosen up and let this one go.

Evidence in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) suggests that many other copy editors already have. An initial read-through of the 1920 instances in academic prose of “as such” followed by a comma turns up examples of the therefore meaning right and left. Below are just three unambiguous examples (i.e., there is no available logical antecedent for such) that came up early in the search:

However, estimates of damage caused by phishing varies widely, ranging from $61 million per year14 to $3 billion per year25 of direct losses to victims in the U.S. The main problem is a lack of data from banks and other institutions that suffer losses; as such, these estimates are heavily dependent on the methods used and assumptions made by the organizations compiling and reporting the statistics. (Communications of the ACM, 2012)

Homeless individuals, by nature of their condition, will most likely require comprehensive services, and often times will need advocacy to access those services. As such, treatment providers need specific training in multiple areas of intervention, including a variety of therapeutic issues. … (Journal of Instructional Psychology, 2011)

Within this framework there is little reason to think that young Nino, had he been born in a different time and place, would not have found great success in virtually any authoritarian environment, from the ecclesiastical environment of the Inquisition to the nationalistic and militaristic atmosphere of early twentieth-century Europe. It just so happens that he was born in modern America which, though at times hostile to his worldview, has ultimately proved to suit him and his views fairly well. As such, the humanist might ask: What does that say about modern America? (The Humanist, 2010)

The most striking finding to me in the Corpus of Contemporary American English data is just how academic the transitional phrase as such is. This phrase appears to be far from colloquial (i.e., more associated with speech than writing). It appears 21.08 times per million words in academic prose, compared with 1.89 in speech, 2.54 in newspapers, and 3.65 in magazines. In other words, as such is anywhere from almost six to more than 10 times more common in academic prose than in any other register. And all registers seem to show a mixture of the use where the such in as such has a clear antecedent and of the one where the full phrase means therefore.

My conclusion: My as-such underlining does not seem well justified. Yes, there are certainly critics of the construction out there. But the use of as such to mean therefore or consequently seems entrenched enough in published academic prose that writers should not feel they have to avoid this use for fear of harsh judgment that it is too colloquial or “slipshod.” If this use of as such comes up on the ballot for American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, I’m voting acceptable.

 

Update (4/27/15): The American Heritage Dictionary editors polled the Usage Panel in 2005 about this use of as such as a connector with no clear antecedent, and 75% of the Panel rejected this example: Rousseau articulated what he called the general will, which supposedly reflects the true will of all the people. As such, Rousseau is a great defender of democracy (s.v., “such”). The editors are currently considering reballoting it in a future survey.

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