Phraseology: ‘as it were’ vs. ‘so to speak’

Posted on Wed 17 Aug 2011 @ 12.01am UTC

SOMEONE HAS ASKED Learn English or Starve to explain the English phrase as it were, which LEOS already knows since time immemorial that many people (even native English speakers) have trouble with it.

The phrase as it were is closely associated in meaning with the phrase so to speak, and this is where the fun begins when people start using both phrases in the same breath.

Wrong usage in red, and correct usage in blue.

* * *

as it were

This is an idiom — and a curious parenthetic phrase. (Then again, absolutely literally speaking, every phrase in every language is arguably an idiom, isn’t it?)

As it were is as common in written English as it is in spoken English. It is a shortening (a truncation, if you will) of as it were so in use since Chaucer’s time: he had it in his Nun’s Priest’s Table (ca. 1387).

I’m going to tell you the meaning in literacy first, and then go on to talk about its meaning in cultural literacy.

(If you don’t know what cultural literacy means, then you aren’t paying enough attention to what you’re reading and listening. You might just have to subscribe to Learn English or Starve, whose name itself is an example of cultural literacy.)

First, the literacy meaning.

The simplest answer is ‘if I can put it that way.’ In other words, one would say it, if only one could mean it. Dear Mrs Eileen Friedman, my former biology tutor, uses ‘if I can put it that way’ all the time, instead of the rather Englishy as it were. A great alternative and highly to be recommended.

How not to explain things

PAY ATTENTION! Class is in session!

Ever noticed that dictionaries tend to use interlocking definitions in explaining things? No? You need to pay goddamn more attention.

The major dictionaries offer these definitions:

  • (a) as if it were so [yeah, that’s really helpful; they must be geniuses!]
  • (b) as if it were really so [*groan*]
  • (c) in a manner of speaking, figuratively speaking
  • (d) in fact if not in deed
  • (e) seemingly
  • (f) in a way: He was living in a dream world, as it were.

Nearly all of the major dictionaries (printed and online) explain things typically in this god-forsaken way (give or take some slight variations):

‘to indicate that a word or statement is perhaps
not formally exact though practically right’

(Oxford English Dictionary)

plus the bizarre, almost outlandish example of:

she lives here, as it were (1)

I don’t know about you, but that definition and example really got me floored. It sure as hell must be next to useless especially for a learner of English. It’s a classic case of academicspeak. How could “she lives here, as it were” possibly be “not formally exact though practically right”? Does she live here or not? Is she still actually living, or dead and gone already? Just what the hell are you on about? Did you drink your grandmother’s ashes as coffee by mistake?!!

Okay, time to get tough with these bozos, and fulfil this blog’s mission statement — let’s raep the faces of these lexicographers for their bad attitude in inventing that abortion of a definition and example.

(If you’ve ever studied linguistics and have the temerity to call yourself a linguist, count yourself a lexicographer, albeit an honorary one — ergo, due for raeping as well.)

If you pay attention to anything, you blind/deaf sonofabitch, you can instantly infer three things:

  • dictionary editors must have been guilty of copypasta — otherwise how else could this bizarre example keep cropping up in nearly all the dictionaries?
  • the dictionary editors are too damn lazy (and nowhere as industrious as LEOS in making a real effort at the job) and instead choose to explain things in interlocking definitions — witness definitions (a) and (b)
  • the def and ex are dynamite on paper — especially for academicians trying to show off their talents in interlocking definitions without the least bit being helpful to those who are left cornered

Wiktionary is not helpful either but does a better job by saying as it were applies ‘to a statement that may not be the literal truth, but it’s not far from it.’

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997, 2003) offers ‘seemingly’ (definition e), which is a kooky and ridiculous definition — goes to show that American lexicographers don’t speak English, really.

The truth is, even the crappiest dictionary will give very serviceable definitions for almost all standalone words. It’s the phrases that give people trouble, and what happens when they turn to a dictionary? They get a slap in the face with crap like “she lives here, as it were.”

Better explanations here

By reason of life-alteringly extensive research, LEOS is pleased to offer you a better explanation, free of charge, for this curious idiom masquerading as an adverbial phrase.

Better definitions (by far):

  1. if I can put it that way
  2. if it could be said like that
  3. as it might be said
  4. as if it were really

In other words, as it were is to show that it’s just a way of saying something that might seem silly or unreasonable or counterfactual or almost figurative.

The sunlight on the icy branches made delicate
lacy cobwebs from tree to tree, as it were. (2)

In many ways children live in a different world, as it were, from adults. (3)

The correct position to use as it were is NEAR TO and AFTER the words they refer to, otherwise it isn’t very clear as it were relates to.

Americans and Chinese have a noticeable tendency to use modifiers in forward-acting fashion, so that as it were modifies ‘delicate lacy cobwebs from tree to tree.’ The British way is to use it AFTER the stuff it modifies. Compare these with example (2):

The sunlight on the icy branches made, as it were,
delicate lacy cobwebs from tree to tree. (4)

The sunlight on the icy branches made delicate lacy cobwebs,
as it were, from tree to tree. (5)

Academics are particularly fond of using parenthetical clauses in the middle of sentences. Avoid this kind of writing habit — it makes your writing pretentious and laboured.

Frankly, use your common sense: you’ve got to tell people what the hell as it might be said — what the hell that’s not really so — before you go on to show that it’s just your way of saying it.

But because of academic influence, many people use as it were (and similar adverbial phrases) in the wrong position, such as in:

I was so terrified that, as it were, my legs were like jelly. (6)

I was so terrified that my legs were like jelly, as it were. (7) (Corrected)

Don’t you feel, as it were, overwhelmed by so many words
and ways of putting them together?

Don’t you feel overwhelmed, as it were, by so many words
and way sof putting them togther? (9) (Corrected)

He’s from the top of the lower classes, as it were. (10)

Grammatically, as it were is an adverbial phrase that incorporates the subjunctive mood. When you use the subjunctive, you are saying/proposing a condition contrary to fact — kind of like a ‘maybe’ or a ‘wish.’ This makes sense because as it were is saying something that is not exactly factual. The subjunctive is one of the most difficult parts of English, even to native English speakers.

Some people argue that, shouldn’t as it were really be as it WAS instead for proper subject-to-verb agreement? No, and the short answer is that this phrase is one of those cases where were is still required in the third-person singular.

The long answer is that, grammatically speaking, as is a rare lead-in of the subjunctive — we are more used to if, though (with or without as), wish and even as by itself leading the subjunctive. (No one said the English language wasn’t full of exceptions.)

As though I were an authority on grammar, I post the above. (11)

As it were, I suppose I could be. (12)

However, in other counterfactual statements we can use either were or was:

I wish I were/was going with you. (13)

If I were/was stronger… (14)

But were is required when it is inverted or when followed by another verb:

Were I stronger… (15) (Not ‘was’)

If I were to go… (16) (Not ‘was’)

So much for grammar. LEOS highly recommends that you treat as it were as a particular idiom along the lines of so to speak (see below). You will find it easier to use if you treat it as an idiom rather than as a strictly grammatical device.

As it were bothers a lot of people, mainly because it almost always sound stilted — but then again, these are the same people who are also bothered by things like an historic (especially if historic is pronounced with [h], but some speakers have it naturally, though, with [h]-deletion conditioned by stress). You just can’t please anyone nowadays.

Can I use it for something factual in the past?

No. If you mean something like ‘if it could be said like that,’ then it’s okay to use as it were:

No rest for the wicked, as it were. (17)

But if you mean like ‘something in the past,’ then you have to say as it was:

Life, as it was, was full of hardship in 1955. (18)

School life was full of partying and drinking, as it was then. (19)

As it was is a completely different ballgame, though it looks remarkably similar to as it were, which leads many to mistakenly assume as it was and as it were are different forms of the same thing. They are not.

For Chinese users

If you’re a translator, your English/Chinese dictionaries are mostly wrong. It’s even worse on those electronic and online translators. The usual crap translation is an oh-so-bloody-literal verbatim translation, like this abortion: as it were = 因為它是 (simplified 因为它是 yīnwèi tā shì)

This one is spot on, though:

  • as it were如果我可以這樣說 (simplified 如果我可以这样说 rúguǒ wǒ kěyǐ zhèyàng shuō, if maybe I could say it like that)

This is the bit that no textbook contains

Let’s now look at the meaning of as it were in cultural literacy. (Cultural literacy is not the same as literacy: you can be highly literate but analogously a complete dimwit in cultural literacy.)

As it were carries certain meanings that go beyond the phrase’s idiomatic/colloquial meanings.

As it were is what unfortunate people add to their sentences when they are desperately trying to convince you that they are either telling the truth, or are quite a bit smarter than in reality. In short, it is a phrase to sound cultured.

Well, when I was last in Italy, we dined at a most excellent
little place I found called Nicola’s, as it were. (20)

I was standing in a cold draught to that sexy new girl
from number 21 and now I’m all stiff … <pause, slight blush>
err … as it were. (21)

Example (21) is in fact saying, ‘Oops! I just spoke an inadvertent double entendre and I want you to believe that my mind is dirty enough to have realised it, but not so dirty as to have done it deliberately.’

Protip: how to avoid using ‘as it were’

Why not just say it the most direct way possible?

The sunlight on the icy branches made delicate lacy cobwebs
from tree to tree, if it could be said like that. (22)

In many ways children live in a different world from adults,
if I could say it like that. (23)

I was so terrified that my legs were like jelly, as if they really were. (24)

I was so terrified that my legs were like jelly, if I could put it that way. (25)

Don’t you feel overwhelmed, if I could be put that way, by so many
words and ways of putting them together? (26)

* * *

so to speak

This is another phrase with a very close meaning to as it were. It’s hard to pin this phrase down to a simple meaning, but the first four are effective replacements:

  1. as one might say
  2. one way of saying this
  3. as we say, as if it were really so: the feeling is, so to speak, quite dead
  4. in an otherwise way of saying
  5. in a manner of speaking, figuratively speaking: can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak; we still don’t have our heads above water, so to speak
  6. for want of a better description/phrase

In other words, so to speak really means ‘to say it in a certain way, even though the words are not exactly accurate.’

For Chinese users, so to speak has the same meaning as as it were可以這麼說 (simplified 可以这么说 kěyǐ zhème shuō, to say it like that).

Grammatically, so to speak is an adverbial phrase. The best way is to treat it as an idiom, unless you want to show yourself off as a grammarfag and tell everybody that you know what an adverbial phrase is — in which case, you’d better not screw up using it.

Again, the correct position of so to speak is NEAR TO and AFTER the stuff it refers to, but this not an absolute rule:

Don’t you feel overwhelmed by so many words and
ways of putting them together, so to speak? (27)

Don’t you feel overwhelmed, so to speak, by so many words
and ways of putting them together?
(28) (Corrected)

The placing of so to speak in a sentence is largely dictated by cultural usage and the literary effect wanted (all correct usages below, with explanations):

John helps me with my taxes. He’s my accountant, so to speak. (29)

John isn’t an accountant, but because he helps me with my taxes, he is as if my accountant.

I just love my little poodle. She’s my baby, so to speak. (30)

The poodle is not really my baby, but I treat it like it is one.

I was so terrified that my legs were like jelly, so to speak. (31)

I was so terrified that my legs, so to speak, were like jelly. (32)

My legs only resembled jelly.

John was, so to speak, the leader of the club but he was
officially only the club secretary.

John was acting like the club leader, when in fact he was only the club secretary.

The horse danced on its hind legs, so to speak. (34)

The horse danced, so to speak, on its hind legs. (35)

The horse, so to speak, danced on its hind legs. (36)

The horse was motioning in a way that resembled dancing to me.

Even if they obeyed all the rules, these youngsters would still be,

so to speak, an unruly lot. (37)

Rules or no rules, youngsters are still an unruly bunch. Pointless to use so to speak here.

My dog told me, so to speak, that she has to pee. (38)

Obviously, since dogs can’t talk, my dog never ‘told’ me anything of the kind.

New York City is an urban jungle, so to speak. (39)

NYC is obviously not physically a jungle, but the speaker chose to use a colourful phrase to say it.

My brother plays his guitar all day long. He’ll be playing that guitar
in his grave, so to speak. (40)

Again, any of those sentences (27 – 40, but 29 is borderline) make sense without so to speak.

We often use so to speak after saying something colloquial, or something we would not normally say, but which describes what we’ve been talking about. Oftentimes this has a double meaning — even a sexual innuendo or pun:

Nathan will do it both ways, so to speak. (41)

I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees, so to speak. (42)

My grandfather is 74 and he plays golf every day — it’s a sport you can
play even as you head into the sunset, so to speak. (43)

‘Sunset’ is the euphemism for growing old and approaching death, so that so to speak helps to indicate to the listener/reader that ‘head into the sunset’ is not literally playing golf towards the setting sun.

Mr. Black’s life was an open book, so to speak, from
his birth in Jackson, Mississippi, …

They must learn to wear several hats, so to speak, working with
management, sales and engineering… (45)

And the short life of a pope is also a cause of weakness; for in the
ten years, which is the average life of a pope, he can with difficulty
lower one of th factions; and if, so to speak, one people should
almost destroy the Colonnesi, another would arise hostile to the
Orsini, who would support their oppressors, and yet would not
have time to ruin the Orsini. (46)
(Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince)

Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes:
A thing, as the Bellman remarked, 
That frequently happens in tropical climes,
When a vessel is, so to speak, ‘snarked.’ (47)
(Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark)

Perhaps it would be as well to start out with a broad and rapid sketch
of Nietzsche as a writer on Morals, Evolution, and Sociology, so that
the reader may be prepared to pick out for himself, so to speak, all
passages in this work bearing in any way upon Nietzsche’s views in
those three important branches of knowledge. (48)
(Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book For All And None)

The English Jews are perhaps one-up on the rest of us: they tend to use for want to a better description for both as it were and so to speak, both of which could be shoehorned into either meaning.

Native English speakers also find so to speak a bit hard to handle sometimes. Here is a native speaker asking for help:

“My daughter came to me with an English assignment including meanings of specific phrases in the English language. The only one I couldn’t quite put my finger on was the phrase, ‘so to speak.’ Even my best resources couldn’t quite come up with a meaning. Some said it means ‘in other words.’ Others say it really means nothing. A friend of mine read me from a dictionary of English language that it is ‘an outdated, hackneyed expression’ that should not be used. But, still no meaning was given. Anyone have a clear definition?”
(A native English speaker)

Here’s another query:

“Does this phrase have a reverse meaning? Does it have a sarcastic connotation?”
(A second language speaker of English)

Well, it doesn’t mean ‘in other words.’ In other words means ‘otherwise stated’ or ‘put differently’:

We have no money: in other words, we’re skint. (48A)

In other words, stay within the boundary: use vocabulary to indicate
that you are a well-educated, contemporary person, who leaves out
pretentious words and common slang, as neither end of the spectrum
will strengthen a resume. (48B)
(Thomas J. Wacker, Keywords That Will Place Your Resume At the
Top of the Selection Pool

No, it is not an outdated, hackneyed expression: it is very much alive, and you’ll also find it in the highest forms of literature.

No, it’s not at all sarcastic, although that’s a hard one to explain. It lets your listener/reader know that what you’ve just said is AN UNUSUAL WAY OF SAYING IT. It can often be left out.

The reason that it could be left out comes into the area of cultural literacy. So to speak is often used to suggest that some people may not think it is a good way to say it that way — examples 43 and 47 being good examples.

* * *


Quotation marks and slang, colloquialisms and idioms

LEOS is not a fan of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, mainly because its (highly biased) precepts have mislead generations of people into believing many crazy, groundless ideas about what proper English should be.

But credit where credit’s due, Will Strunk is generally right that you shouldn’t use quotation marks around slang and colloquial or idiomatic phrases — although many people seem to take that advice in far too absolute terms. Broadly speaking, either the phrase is appropriate, or it ain’t. If it’s appropriate, use it. If not, don’t. But don’t bastardise yourself by putting quotation marks around phrases like ‘so to speak’ — you’re advertising yourself like a gigantic blinking neon sign that says, “yeah, I know this is wrong, but you might not be aware, so I’ll make it obvious to you.” It’s a tiny gratuitous insult, so to speak.

Remember this advice:

“Not that hard to understand. It’s passive language, and if the philospher, or anyone for that matter, wants to avoid being understood and treated as a passive person, and wants their ideas to be taken more seriously and understood as declarative rather than suggestive, then their language must adjust to suit, and they must not use language that will void and render their posits moot. Easy peasy.”
(A commenter at a philosophy-related website)

* * *


if you will

This is another terribly English idiom (or colloquial phrase?) that doesn’t mean what the words literally mean.

If you will means almost the same as as it were and so to speak, but with a slight difference. In some cases, it can be used to replace so to speak.

…we can easily picture a man remembering a childhood scene who, later,
faces a frivolous single, if you will. (49)

When it comes to cultural literacy, if you will is overused by those trying to sound sophisticated and/or intelligent.

You could say I’m, if you will, ‘buy curious.’ (50)
(The character Tobias Bluth in Arrested Development, TV series, 2003-06, CBS)

For lack of a better description, if you will is asking for your permission to say something differently than expected — usually because the person speaking is illiterate or can’t think of the proper or nicer way of saying it:

The weatherman said that a Category 5 Hurricane named Debbie, a big ass
storm, if you will, would be hitting town this week. (51)

It is also a device to kill any awkward tension in the air after mentioning something mildly aggressive or sexual or inappropriate:

She used … a gargantuan amount of force on him, if you will. (52)

For Chinese users, there’s no real equivalent in Chinese for if you will — the Chinese just don’t speak or write in that way. The closest meaning for practical purposes would be somewhere between 如果你想這樣說的 (如果你想这样说 rúguǒ nǐ xiǎng zhèyàng shuō de, if you wish to say it like that) and 可以這麼說 (可以这么说 kěyǐ zhème shuō, to speak as such). Other than for purely translation work, why on earth would any Chinaman possibly want to speak in anglicised Chinese anyway?

Leave a reply and tell us what you think.

© Learn English or Starve, 2011. Amended 17 Aug 2011.

Images: Dictionary via Maritime Sun ♦ Idiomatic via Wikieducator ♦ ‘Speak your mind’ by Whuffe via uastday ♦ ‘Payment’ via The ‘Blog’ of Unnecessary Quotes.

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