The Grammarphobia Blog

Reputation management

Q: I am writing a personal statement for a business school application and I have a question about this sentence: “Carlson’s reputation precedes it.” I think “it” is correct because “itself” would refer to the reputation, not the school, right? And the purpose of this statement is to say the reputation precedes the school.

A: We agree with you that “it” is the correct pronoun if you want to say the Carlson school’s reputation precedes the school. But we’re puzzled by exactly what that’s supposed to mean.

In common usage, someone is preceded by his reputation. That is, people have heard of him—for good or for ill—before actually meeting him. So we say things like “Your reputation precedes you” or “Lady Eustace’s reputation preceded her.”

It wouldn’t be idiomatic to say that the reputation of a school or cathedral or lake or other static inanimate thing precedes it. One could perhaps say the reputation of an invading army precedes it. And perhaps the reputation of a vintage wine given as a gift may precede it. But both the army and the wine are moving toward the people who’ve heard of them.

Maybe you meant to say that anyone with knowledge of business schools (or anyone in the business world) would be familiar with Carlson’s reputation. Or maybe you were referring to the reputation of the entrepreneur who gave the school its name.

The University of Minnesota School of Business was renamed the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management in 1986 after the founder of the Carlson Companies donated $25 million to the university.

Speaking of money, the word “reputation” has a financial background, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word entered English in the late 1300s by way of Anglo-Norman, but its roots are in Latin.

In classical Latin, the OED says, reputation referred to, among other things, consideration in drawing up a financial statement. In post-classical Latin, it could refer to a good name as well as a good balance sheet.

And, speaking of good names, who hasn’t at times felt the need of some “reputation managment,” the catchphrase for PR in the age of the Internet.

As for that sentence in your application, we’d recommend rewriting it. Then the admissions director at Carlson might shake your hand next fall and say, “Your reputation precedes you.”

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