Etymology Usage

As long as he needs me

Q: Am I right or wrong that “so long as” should actually be “as long as”? After all, Nancy sings “As long as he needs me” in the musical Oliver!

A: “So long as” and “as long as” are both correct.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry for “long” as an adverb, says “so (or as) long as” is “often nearly equivalent to ‘provided that,’ ‘if only.’ ”

In addition, the OED says the elliptical phrase “long as” is short for “so (or as) long as.

An example can be found in Wordsworth’s poem “To a Small Celandine” (1802): “Long as there’s a sun that sets / Primroses will have their glory.”

There’s a very interesting history behind “so” and “as,” if you’re game for a lengthy aside. Both come from Old English words that go back more than a thousand years.

“So” was originally swa (first recorded circa 700), and “as” was ealswa or allswa (recorded sometime before 950), which meant “all so,” “wholly so,” or “quite so.” You might say that “as” began as an intensified form of “so.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains the development of “as” over the years this way:

“Through weakening of force and accent allswa gradually became alsa, alse, als, ase, finally being reduced to as. Historically as is equivalent to so and has all the relational uses of so, the differences being largely idiomatic.”

Before the intensified form ealswa or allswa became common, the Old English phrase swa lange swa (literally “so long so”) was used.

It’s been recorded in many sources, including The Blickling Homilies, written in 971. Today, swa lange swa would be translated “so long as” or “as long as.”

To use a modern example in a comparative construction, today we might say that a child has hair “as bright as gold.” The Old English was swa beorht swa gold (literally, “so bright so gold”).

The OED, in its entry for the adverb “so,” has a section on the “so … as” construction, which it defines as meaning “to the same extent, in the same degree, as.” 

Citations in writing go back to before the year 1225 for “so … as” in negative comparisons. Quoted examples include “not so terrible as” … “never so useful as” … “nowhere so happy as.” 

And citations go back to 1390 for “so … as” (with a meaning identical to “as … as”) in affirmative comparisons. Quoted examples include “so mighty as” … “so good as” … “so frivolous as” … “so often as.”

We hope that we haven’t been so verbose as to turn you off! But here’s another aside, a brief one this time.

Because the phrase “so … as” is common in negative constructions, many people think it’s wrong to use “as … as” in the negative. This is a popular myth that we’ve written about on the blog.

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