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.

  • 4
    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
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 16:15
  • 1
    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
    Commented Sep 6, 2013 at 13:09
  • 1
    As a general rule, if someone says that an expression that is frequently used, is well-understood by everyone, and is not ambiguous is not fit for use at any time they are wrong.
    – Casey
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 18:02
  • Yes OP, "in terms of" is just pointless padding, as Strunk & White (for example) point out. Sure, there are a tiny number of good uses for it (Joe Fagan's answer explains this nicely and in brief), but yes the reference is basically correct and in terms of using the phrase, in short, so as to speak, with reference to that, just never use it (or the other similar padding phrases).
    – Fattie
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 20:50

8 Answers 8


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."

  • 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
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 15:56
  • "I suppose the phrase could be just extra meaningless words" How very strange, it's one of the basic (perhaps the most frequent?!) "filler" phrases in English. (Sure, unusually and un-relatedly, it can be used correctly in unusual situations.)
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 15:22
  • @Fattie What would you mean by “filler” if not “extra meaningless words”? Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 0:53
  • this is hands down the best answer. As a side note, I can't see "in terms of" as synonymous with "in relation to", when used the right way (as above). I personally don't see it as superfluous any more than ''regarding'' is a filler. Here's an example of it being used by Martin Scorsese : "When I first got the script, there were so many things that we talked about in terms of what it made us think of"
    – Daniel
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 20:40

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.

  • 1
    Yes, for me it adds a nuance of contrast.
    – Erics
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 12:18

I suspect that Strunk & White, The Elements of Style influenced the treatment of "in terms of" in the Penn State University style guide for students, which the poster cites. In the chapter on "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," Strunk & White, fourth edition (2000), 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 less useful in the example that appears in the poster's original question, as zpletan illustrates by saying the same thing more succinctly in a 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.


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.


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.


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."


  • Linguistics-wise, you have all your ducks in a row. Commented Jun 11, 2013 at 22:02

You may want to express centigrade in terms of fahrenheit for instance, or efficiency in terms of kilowatts of electricity generated as opposed to expressing it in terms of number of houses heated; but there the real usefulness of this technical expression ends.

There are always far better ways to form an everyday sentence without it. Alas, all the time now we hear it used lazily as an all-purpose reach-me-down that gets round the need to think of the word that actually works, to the point where we're now even having a discussion about the possibility that this obnoxious intruder has a place in our language.


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.

  • 2
    -1 In terms of is frequently and obviously used other than in mathematics, as the other answers illustrate.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jun 11, 2013 at 23:08
  • @TrevorD It may be used that way, but that doesn't mean that the usage is correct. +1 Commented Jun 12, 2013 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
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 15:59
  • I think tho sis an excellent answer, and the most worthwhile answer. (1) As a broad general rule, never use it, it's exactly like saying "umm". (2) Sure, there are obscure uses for it. (However - even there - why? Because of (1), just choose another way so that you avoid any association with (1).) and (3) mathematicians may use it.
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 15:24
  • @JoeBlow Why should you alter your wording to satisfy a totally fanciful "rule" that is not actually followed in any dialect of English?
    – Casey
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 18:03

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