The Grammarphobia Blog

In and of itself

Q: I wonder if you would comment on the expression “in and of itself.” The “and of” part seems not just redundant, but rather pretentious and legalistic.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary discusses “of itself” and “in itself,” but it has no comment on “in and of itself,” which appears to be an emphatic combination of the two. We don’t consider this a redundancy, and we’ll explain why later.

The “of” plus reflexive pronoun construction is very old; it was recorded in Old English in the West Saxon Gospels of the late 900s.

This “of oneself” construction, according to the OED, has meant “by one’s own impetus or motion; without the instigation or aid of another; essentially.”

The dictionary’s citations include Old English usages like of me sylfum (“of myself”), off hemm sellfenn (“of himself”), and so on. But the usual phrases now are “of themselves” and “of itself,” the OED says.

Examples include this passage in Nicolas Udall’s translation of the Apophthegmes of Erasmus (1542): “Whatsoever thyng wer not of it self eivill.”

And here’s a later one, from Oliver Goldsmith’s A Survey of Experimental Philosophy (1774): “Matter is of itself entirely passive.”

The phrase “in itself” has a similar history.

The OED says that “in” has been used with reflexive pronouns like “himself” and “itself” to mean “in his or its own person, essence, or nature; apart from any connexion with or relation to others; absolutely.”

Citations include these: “Suppose Artificial beautifying of the face be not in it self absolutely unlawful” (1656); “The story may be true in itself” (1870); and “It will be a sport in itself, sufficient of itself to thrill and allure” (1919).

The combination of the two phrases in one – “in and of itself” – is extremely common. A Google search came up with 32.9 million hits.

Although the combination phrase has no separate entry in the OED, a search of citations in the dictionary turns up some examples, including these:

“All of this over-tracking would … be in and of itself a work of art, obtrusively filtering through the music” (1966, from a letter of Glenn Gould).

“It is interesting that 58 percent of American men think that burning a draft card is violence, in and of itself” (1972, Science magazine).

“Being a thing in and of itself, her kiss … was not necessarily a mere prelude to other activity” (2000, from Tom Robbins’s novel Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates).

Is the phrase redundant? We don’t think so. As we’ve said before on the blog,  “There’s a fine line between an emphatic use and a redundancy.” We’ve frequently addressed this subject, including a posting a year and a half ago.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, we’ve even used “in and of itself” ourselves (“The ‘ism’ suffix is pretty much neutral in and of itself”).

But the phrase does tend to be a bit lofty sounding, so we use it sparingly and we think others should, too.

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