The Grammarphobia Blog

Is it three words or “to”?

Q: Is it just me, or is the phrase “in order to” always worthless, with a simple “to” sufficing?

A: Not so fast. Although the phrase “in order to” is often a wordy way of saying “to,” it sometimes helps clarify a sentence where “to” alone can be ambiguous.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives this example from a 1958 letter by James Thurber: “I had to borrow $2,500 from Elliot Nugent, and damn near left The New Yorker for Paramount Pictures in order to live.”

The full phrase makes it clear that Thurber meant he nearly went to work for Paramount to make enough money to live, not simply to live, say, in Beverly Hills.

Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, says “in order to” is most often needed with an infinitive “when another infinitive is nearby in the sentence.”

Like you, many usage authorities have condemned ”in order to” as verbose, but the phrase has a long, respectable history.

In fact, the first published reference for it used before a verb is in the 1609 Douay-Rheims translation of the Old Testament, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

“These are they that speak to Pharao, king of Egypt, in order to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt.”

A more recent reference, of course, can be found in the Preamble to the United States Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The OED also has citations, dating back to 1526, for “in order to” used with nouns and noun phrases to mean “with regard to,” “to bring about,” or “for the purpose of.”

This usage is now obsolete, but here’s a 16th-century example of the phrase used to mean “for the purpose of”: “The ryches of the worlde hath no goodness: but in order to man.”

Back to your question: “in order to” is definitely legitimate to clarify an ambiguous sentence. But even when clarity is not an issue, you should let your ear decide whether to use a simple verb or the whole enchilada. If you have a tin ear, however, keep it short.

I’ve had several blog items in the past about redundant (and not so redundant) expressions. Here’s the latest entry, which includes links to the others.

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