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I have came across this reference: https://www.e-education.psu.edu/styleforstudents/c3_p35.html

This phrase is virtually meaningless, but we often hear it on the news and in bloated speeches. “In terms of” is really just a wordy and sloppy transition—usually an unoriginal disguise for a simple preposition, such as “in,” or a more elegant phrasing, such as “in relation to.” “In terms of the cost, it is high,” is easily revised to “Its cost is high.” Do not use “in terms of,” or do so trembling.

Is the reference really right?

Can I use the following sentence?

The figures are expressed in terms of a percentage/in percentage terms.

If so, the phrase "in terms of" seems not to be referred to relation.

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I wouldn't have a problem using it, but I'd never really thought about it before. The figures are expressed as percentages seems like a less clunky way to say it. –  zpletan Apr 13 '12 at 16:15
    
I get this all the time in my work as a transcriber. It has become such a common phrase for barristers to use and means nothing. Barristers used to be reasonably eloquent when I first stated work, after all they are advocates — the mouthpiece — for someone less able to put their view across. Now I think defendants would do much better defending themselves because the quality of barristers has gone down the pan since 1972. Judges are going the same way, frequently saying yeah and okay. Whatever happened to their training? –  user51334 Sep 6 '13 at 13:09
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7 Answers 7

I suppose the phrase could be just extra meaningless words. Instead of saying, "The figure is expressed in terms of a percentage", you could say, "The figure is expressed as a percentage". But using the phrase "in terms of" adds some emphasis.

The example from the quote, "In terms of cost, it is high", is just poor grammar. What is high? There is no proper antecedent for the pronoun.

Where the phrase is mainly useful is when the object being referred to is ambiguous. Like if I said, "The cost of this war was too high", you might well assume that I meant the financial cost. If I said, "In terms of lives lost, the cost of this war was too high," I clearly mean something very different. I could, of course, reword the sentence to avoid the ambiguous word. Like here I could say, "Too many lives were lost in this war." But perhaps I want to use the word "cost" to express the idea I am trying to convey in the larger context. That would be especially true if I was trying to establish a parallel construct, like, "In terms of dollars spent, the cost of this war was low. But in terms of lives lost, the cost was very high."

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Not sure why someone downvoted this, but this is the only answer that actually provides a proper usage of the idiom which is not redundant. The question presupposes a usage in situations which are one-dimensional when the purpose of the idiom is to speak about a single dimension of a complex situation. –  horatio Apr 13 '12 at 15:56
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I personally think it is a useful usage when discussing large or complex subjects which could be viewed/analysed/approached from a variety of perspectives. In that sort of scenario I might be looking at say, the state of the nation, from the the viewpoint of a poor child and not in terms of GDP.

But like 'obviously', 'literally'et al, it is susceptible to mangling by fools.

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Yes you can. Your usage of "in terms of" is completely different. You are specifying the scale on which the quantity is being represented. It's obviously important to specify this so as to make clear the distinction between an absolute scale (pure numbers) and relative scale (percentages and fractions).

The style manual suggests a usage of "in terms of" that seems unneccesary -- where the phrase is merely used as a connecting phrase. I've encountered some equally jarring transitions, such as "If we consider the exchange rate, we find that it has increased", where the initial clause is just a clumsy introduction to the main observation. Note that these constructs are perfectly grammatical, but they just don't reflect good style. They also notch up the often constrained word count in academic papers.

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Its primary usage-metric, in terms of issues around English prose, is foundationed on the need to raise the word-count and make the speaker sound clever. "In terms of communities / demographics like politics, academia and the media, it’s a kind of linguistic bindweed: a tough, fast-growing weed smothering everything in sight."

http://overlordoftheuberferal.wordpress.com/2012/09/22/ex-term-in-ate/

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Linguistics-wise, you have all your ducks in a row. –  TimLymington Jun 11 '13 at 22:02
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I think if "in terms of" describes the units or metrics used then it's a valuable idiom. E.G. We evaluated the project in terms of sales and customer count.

When used to mean "with reference to" then it hurts my ears but is acceptable. E.G. In terms of success, we exceeded our wildest dreams.

When used out of pure laziness or in terms of inability to form a sentence, it is just wrong.

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I suspect that Strunk & White, The Elements of Style influenced the PSU reference cited in the original post. In the chapter on "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," Strunk & White offers this entry:

In terms of. A piece of padding usually best omitted.

The job was unattractive in terms of salary.

The salary made the job unattractive.

Strunk & White remains an extremely influential style book in the United States. It consistently prefers conciseness to prolixity, which puts it (to some extent) at odds with the conversational style increasingly popular in writing over the past several decades. Nevertheless, the core idea that writers shouldn't habitually write longer than they need to in order to express themselves clearly and effectively strikes me as sound—and respectful of readers' time.

The phrase "in terms of" is crucial to the sense of the sentence "Solve for x in terms of y." It is far more expendable in the original post's example, as zpletan illustrates by saying the same thing more succinctly in the comment beneath that post. It is utterly expendable in the example that Strunk & White provides.

Like most other style guidelines, the stricture against "in terms of" is not absolute. But if you're aware that "in terms of" frequently is superfluous—or at least long-winded—you can tighten your writing by taking care to use it only when it contributes something meaningful to your prose.

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One may use "in terms of" in mathematics, and nowhere else. For example, one can speak of "expressing A in terms of X, Y, and Z". The exact meaning of this is that X, Y and Z are the terms that occur in the expression for A.

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-1 In terms of is frequently and obviously used other than in mathematics, as the other answers illustrate. –  TrevorD Jun 11 '13 at 23:08
    
@TrevorD It may be used that way, but that doesn't mean that the usage is correct. +1 –  Donkey_2009 Jun 12 '13 at 15:53
    
@Donkey_2009 But neither you nor bumpy has adduced any evidence to show it's not, and then amount of usage in other contexts suggested that such usage is considered acceptable. As others have said several times on this board, with English there often is no right & wrong as regards rules & usage, merely what is & is not commonly used and, by usage, deemed 'acceptable'. –  TrevorD Jun 12 '13 at 15:59
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