Q: Would you tackle the ubiquitous use of “as to” as the go-to substitute for “about”? I’ve noticed it among the students in my college writing class who are trying to sound “professional” (the current word for “formal” in the lingo of pre-professionals).
A: The phase “as to” has been used since the 14th century by many admired writers—including Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Henry James—to mean with respect to, concerning, or about.
We see nothing wrong with the usage and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which says “it is a common compound preposition in wide use at every level of formality.”
The earliest citation for the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Ayenbite of Inwyt (Remorse of Conscience), a 1340 Middle English translation by the Benedictine monk Dom Michelis of Northgate of a Middle French treatise on morality:
“Þe ilke þet hateþ his broþer, he is manslaȝþe ase to his wylle and zeneȝeþ dyadliche” (“he that hateth his brother, he is a man-slayer as to his will, and sinneth deadly”). We’ve expanded the citation, which is from a translation of La Somme le Roi (“A Survey for a King,” circa 1395), written for the children of Philip III by the Dominican Friar Laurent d’Orléans, the king’s confessor and his children’s tutor.
The usage is ultimately derived from the Old English eall swa (“all so”), an intensification of “so” and an ancestor through “progressive phonetic reduction” of the Modern English “as,” “so,” “also,” “as for,” and “as to,” according to the OED.
As far as we can tell, nobody was troubled by the usage until the early 20th century, when H. W. Fowler complained in The King’s English (1907) about the use of compound prepositions and conjunctions, notably “the absurd prevailing abuse of the compound preposition as to.”
Fowler was especially troubled by the use of “as to” before the conjunction “whether,” arguing that “if as to is simply left out, no difference whatever is made in the meaning.”
But in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Fowler acknowledged that the phrase “has a legitimate use—to bring into prominence at the beginning of a sentence something that without it would have to stand later (As to Smith, it is impossible to guess what line he will take).”
Other usage writers have criticized “as to” as legalese and wordy as well as redundant before conjunctions like “how,” “why” and “whether.”
However, Merriam-Webster’s Usage notes that the phrase is not legalese and is less wordy than some proposed alternatives, like “concerning” and “regarding.” In fact, M-W says, “If we replace it with about, we have five letters, no space, two syllables. How much have we gained? Nothing.”
Yes, “as to” is often unnecessary, but we’re among the many writers who use it. We feel a phrase like “as to whether” may sometimes be less abrupt or more clear than “whether” itself. Here are a couple of Merriam-Webster examples that we’ve expanded:
“My uncertainty as to whether I can so manage as to go personally prevents me from being more explicit” (from an April 7, 1823, letter by Lord Byron).
“There ensued a long conversation as they waited as to whether waiters made more in actual wages than in tips” (from “May Day,” a short story in Tales of the Jazz Age, 1922, by F. Scott Fitzgerald).
And here are a few of the many M-W citations (some of them expanded) for “as to” used in other ways:
“As to the old one, I knew not what to do with him, he was so fierce” (Robinson Crusoe, 1719, by Daniel Defoe).
“Fanny had by no means forgotten Mr. Crawford when she awoke the next morning; but she remembered the purport of her note, and was not less sanguine as to its effect than she had been the night before” (Mansfield Park, 1814, by Jane Austen).
“And so you don’t agree with my view as to said photographer?” (from an April 1, 1877, letter by Lewis Carroll).
“There still remained my relation with the reader, which was another affair altogether and as to which I felt no one to be trusted but myself” (The Art of the Novel, 1934, by Henry James. From a collection of prefaces originally written for a 1909 multivolume edition of James’s fiction).
“When women were first elected to Congress, the question as to how they should be referred to in debate engaged the leaders of the House of Representatives” (The American Language, 4th ed., 1949, by H. L. Mencken).
As Merriam-Webster explains, “As to is found chiefly in four constructions: as an introducer (the use approved by Fowler and his followers) and to link a noun, an adjective, or a verb with following matter.”
The usage guide cites these four examples from conversations of the 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson (cited in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D, 1791):
“He would begin thus: ‘Why, Sir, as to the good or evil of card-playing—’ ‘Now, (said Garrick,) he is thinking which side he shall take.’ ” Johnson is speaking here with the actor David Garrick.
“Sir, there is no doubt as to peculiarities.”
“For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.”
“We are all agreed as to our own liberty.”
In the opinion of the M-W editors, “All of the constructions used by Dr. Johnson are still current. You can use any of them when they sound right to you.”
We agree, though some other usage guides have various objections. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), for example, says “as to is an all-purpose preposition to be avoided whenever a more specific preposition will do.”