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I hear people use the term vis-à-vis all the time in place of what I believe should more correctly be for example or that is.

What is the most generally accepted correct and appropriate use of vis-à-vis, and what are its origins?

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Also, the only meaning I know is "face-to-face" or "opposite"/"across". That's all I'd ever use it for at least, though I believe others use it in a less literal sense. (Why, I don't know, since there are perfectly good English equivalents.) –  Noldorin Jan 26 '11 at 0:00
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@Noldorin: In French, most final consonants are not pronounced at all unless followed by a word that begins with a vowel sound. The process of phonetically linking words is called liaison. –  Jon Purdy Jan 26 '11 at 0:05
    
@Jon: Sorry, I didn't mean consonant, I meant syllable. Liaison is the one, thanks. :) I knew French pretty well back in my school days, but it's gotten steadily rustier... –  Noldorin Jan 26 '11 at 0:08
    
@Noldorin: Ah, no harm done. Even I have to remind myself sometimes not to be so picky on these SE sites. It can get brutal. –  Jon Purdy Jan 26 '11 at 0:11
    
@Jon: Yep, it was just a little slip up, and I'm quite happy if people point them out politely, as you did.. –  Noldorin Jan 26 '11 at 15:41

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

According to The Phrase Finder, the term is French and literally meant face-to-face. When the English picked it up in the 18th century, they started using it to describe a type of horse-drawn carriage wherein there are two seats, allowing occupants to sit across from one another in a face-to-face fashion.

Usage eventually extended to include the alternate meaning of with regard to, and in modern-day discourse it is accepted to use with regard to and vis-à-vis interchangeably. In fact, many people will get confused when you use it to convey its original meaning since the alternate meaning has overshadowed it.

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As a complement to the other answers, as to the origins, here are the ways the phrase is used in French, which maybe helpful to gain a better insight of the various usages in English.

In French, 'vis-à-vis' can be used as a preposition, an adverb or a noun.

Preposition.

Facing, in the presence of:

She sat on the other side of the table, vis-à-vis John.

(archaic, regional Canada) Compared to :

He found it shameful to lose his temper vis-à-vis the old man.

Relative to, figuratively:

Jack swore me to secrecy, even vis-à-vis his daughter

Adverb

To be facing:

If the windows are vis-à-vis, the ventilation is improved

Phrasal adverb, qualifier:

Leaning against the door jamb vis-à-vis, dressed in a grass skirt, she...

Noun

Person facing someone else:

By chance, my eyes fell on Edwin, my vis-à-vis

The opposite facade:

The windows had curtains, so there was no vis-à-vis, only the blank wall

To be facing:

She was vis-à-vis her husband, a pretty little thing she was too, ...

To be facing, reflexively:

The café and the church were vis-à-vis

Adverb

To move into a facing position:

They sat down vis-à-vis, each in his corner, ..

(rare) To be facing (in English this renders no differently to the above) :

They were seated on chairs, (en) vis-à-vis the altar

Carriage with two facing seats:

I could see myself arriving at midnight, in my olive vis-à-vis, at the Opera gate.

Small sofa, where two people can talk conveniently:

The two women sat down on the vis-à-vis and nattered endlessly

(adapted from cntrl.fr)

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But its meaning and usage in French are of only historical interest in a discussion of its meaning and usage in English. -1 –  Colin Fine Jan 26 '11 at 12:55
    
@colin If your read the OP's question carefully, you will see that he also asked "what are its origins?". Whence my answer. –  smirkingman Jan 26 '11 at 13:04
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+1 from me for the historical interest, but I really wish you'd edit the first paragraph of the sentence to make it clear that these sentences are examples of the phrase's usage in French, and do not necessarily have any bearing on its usage in English. As it stands, the answer seems like these are all examples of common English usage, which is false. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 27 '11 at 7:05
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+1 for all the research and an interesting answer. –  Tragicomic Jan 27 '11 at 11:35
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Removed my downvote. –  Colin Fine Jan 27 '11 at 15:16

IMO, these days the expression vis-à-vis is often used in sentences where a comparison is being made.

Examples:

  1. Let's say I am enumerating features of iPhone.I could then say, The choice for applications is certainly much higher in the iPhone OS (125,000 vis-à-vis 20,000 for the Android) (example extracted from internet)

  2. Canadian dollar vis-à-vis selected currencies (when talking about exchange rates perhaps?)

  3. (Example title of a research paper as extracted from the internet): Comparative Competitive Aspects of Japanese Use of Human Resources vis-à-vis United States and Canada

---- and so forth. It is mostly used to paint a picture of something "pitted against" or "in the face of" or "as opposed to" something else.

Hope this helps.

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When I hear/see people use it, I usually find they are using it to mean "as opposed to". I guess the face-to-face metaphor can mean the opposing opinion. Whether or not that is correct usage is slightly arbitrary, just my observation of how people seem to use it.

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Accepted English usage in the military and in corporate meetings I have personally been a part of are "in relation to" or "concerning". They can be used to refer to a geographic location, opinions, or two or more items.

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protected by RegDwigнt May 18 '12 at 13:09

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