Etymology Usage

When “as such” isn’t such a good idea

Q: I generally see “as such” used to mean “therefore,” but I think it should refer to something just mentioned. It’s hard, however, to explain this to other people. Can you assist?

A: You’re right in thinking that the use of “as such” to mean “therefore” is frowned on.

The Oxford English Dictionary calls this usage “colloquial” (that is, more suited for speech than writing) or “vulgar” (commonplace or lacking refinement). 

The word “such” in the idiomatic expression “as such” is a pronoun, and as a pronoun it’s supposed to refer to or stand for something already mentioned—an antecedent.

A sentence shouldn’t include the phrase “as such” unless there’s an antecedent that answers the question “as what?”

First, we’ll take a look at the expression’s accepted meanings and their histories.

The phrase first showed up writing in the mid-17th century, according to the OED.

Its original form was a bit longer—“as it is such” or “as they are such”—and its meaning was “in itself.”

John Milton used the phrase that way in The History of England (1670):

“True fortitude glories not in the feats of War, as they are such, but as they serve to end War soonest by a victorious Peace.”

In that example, “such” refers to the previously mentioned “feats of war.”

A slightly later example, using the phrase in its shorter form, comes from Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1668):

“If Matter as such, had Life, Perception, and Understanding belonging to it.”

In the example above, “such” refers to the previously mentioned “matter.”

The OED says that in the following century “as such” acquired another meaning: “as being what the name or description implies,” or “in that capacity.”

The dictionary’s first example in print for this sense is from Richard Steele, writing in The Spectator (1711):

“When she observed Will. irrevocably her Slave, she began to use him as such.”

Note that here again, the pronoun “such” refers to something already mentioned—in this case, “her slave.”

This more recent example comes from a British legislative act (1911): “The trade or business carried on in the house or place by the licence holder as such.”

In that sentence fragment, “such” refers to the already mentioned “licence holder” (the act uses the British spelling of “license”). 

Now for the frowned-on usage, the “vulgar” or “colloquial” one in which “as such” has no real antecedent and means “accordingly,” “consequently,” “thereupon,” or “therefore.”

This usage was first recorded in the 18th century but has never gained acceptance, probably because it’s ambiguous.

These two examples from letters written in the early 1800s are good examples of the ambiguity of “as such” when it’s used in this vague sense:

“I very much longed to hear from you … and as such I did not the least esteem it for its having been delayed for the reasons assigned.”

And: “H. R. H. Princess Augusta … motioned for me to come to her Highness. As such she addressed me in the most pleasant manner possible.”

See what we mean? Neither sentence answers the question “as what?”

Once again, “such” is a pronoun here, and “as such,” it requires an antecedent.

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