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Q&A

How can "in terms of" alone encompass — and substitute — multiple prepositions "at, by, as, or for"?

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in terms of. This phrase is commonly used as a substitute for a precise identification of relationship or as a substitute for such prepositions as at, by, as, or for. The phrase is correctly used when one thing is being expressed in terms of another thing, as when a rule is discussed in terms of its economic effect. The phrase is loosely or incorrectly used in the following sentences: This policy argument is strong in terms of our client’s case. (Is a strong argument for our client? Or for the opposition?) If the doctor’s words are construed in terms of a guarantee, the result will be different. (Construed as a guarantee?)

How can in terms of

  1. "substitute for a precise identification of relationship or as a substitute for such prepositions as at, by, as, or for"?

  2. signify four prepositions that don't perfectly substitute each other? Incontrovertibly, in some contexts, it's UNgrammatical to substitute at, by, as, or for with each other — L2 learners commonly muff them, and pick the wrong adposition!

Bahrych, Merino. Legal Writing and Analysis in a Nutshell 5th edition (2017). 368.

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There's a discussion of how "in terms of" came to mean "regarding" on the Grammarphobia Blog. The article suggests: "Perhaps it strikes people as more scholarly or scientific than the alternatives." It goes on:

The nontechnical meaning of “in terms of” emerged in the early 19th century. It’s defined in the OED as “by means of or in reference to (a particular concept); in the mode of expression or thought belonging to (a subject or category); (loosely) on the basis of; in relation to; as regards.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrase used in this sense is from a work by the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham: “Contradictoriness … manifested, in terms of a certain degree of strength, towards some proposition or propositions, that have been advanced by some one else” (The Elements of the Art of Packing, as Applied to Special Juries, 1821).

Further on:

The phrase as we know it today, the dictionary says, is sometimes influenced by a use of the plural “terms” in a sense that dates from the late 14th century: “words or expressions collectively (usually of a specified kind); manner of expression, way of speaking; language. Chiefly preceded by in.”

Familiar expressions using this sense of “terms” include “in general terms,” “in layman’s terms,” “in the strongest terms,” and “in no uncertain terms.”

The bridging concept between literal references to terminology and the sense of "regarding" seems to be the idea of "terms" as a way of thinking or an approach to a subject.

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