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In and of Itself

To many people, the phrase in and of itself sounds clunky and old-fashioned. However, when used sparingly—and correctly—it serves a purpose.

Example:
The weather was not, in and of itself, the cause of the traffic delays.
vs.
The weather was not the cause of the traffic delays.

In both sentences, we understand not to blame the weather for the traffic delays, but the first sentence tells us that the weather played some part in the traffic delays. The second sentence tells us that the weather had nothing to do with the traffic delays.

Posted on Friday, January 19, 2007, at 3:16 pm


86 Comments

86 Responses to “In and of Itself

  1. Samuel C Spriggs says:

    I suggest not using this goofy phrase in any sentence. Please tell me what “in and of itself” communicates.

    For example:

    The weather was not, in and of itself, the cause of the traffic delays.

    The weather was not the cause of the traffic delays.

    Apparently the first sentence has more information than the second — but I do not see the difference between the two.

    • Joe says:

      It’s a bad example. A better example would be;

      “This explains my point in and of itself”
      as opposed to
      “This explains my point entirely by itself”

    • Noah says:

      The second example implies that the weather had nothing to do with the traffic delays, while the first example indicates that while the weather may have played a part in causing the delays, there were other factors that helped to generate the traffic as well. The weather, in and of itself, was not the sole reason for the delays.

    • Olivia says:

      The example is right. It’s saying that although the weather did play a part, it was not the direct cause of the traffic.

  2. Briana says:

    As I understand it…

    ‘In and of itself’ communicates the information that the subject, acting alone, could not have produced the observed result.

    (It sounds like an old-fashioned way of saying ‘By itself’.)

    Both sentences tell you not to blame the weather for the delays, but the first sentence acknowledges the weather’s involvement while the second merely denies causality.

  3. Jane says:

    I agree with Briana.

  4. Ben says:

    I agree with Sam. Using the phrase”in and of itself” is just filler and adds nothing meaningful or significant to the sentence. In fact, this phrase makes the whole sentence redundant, wordy, and trite. I say jettison “in and of itself” to a black hole far, far away and don’t look back.

  5. Ben says:

    PS: I think that you could whittle down the phrase to just one word– “itself”– and write the following:

    The weather itself was not the cause of traffic delays.

    This would probably satisfy Briana.

    I, however, like it short and sweet. Anyway, that’s my two cents’ worth in all of this. ;-)

    • ed says:

      “that’s my two cents’ worth in all of this”

      “that’s my 2¢ worth in all of this”

      • The Chicago Manual of Style says, “Isolated references to amounts of money are spelled out for whole numbers of one hundred or less.” AP Stylebook’s rule is “Spell out the word cents and lowercase, using numerals for amounts less than a dollar: 5 cents, 12 cents.” Therefore, Ben’s method is preferred.

  6. Jane says:

    Sam and Ben, I can see that “in and of itself” is filler. Ben, I like your idea of “The weather itself was not the cause of traffic delays.”

  7. Ben says:

    Yay! It’s great that I was able to win Jane over. She’s hot. ;-)

  8. Ben says:

    Hmmm. . . I maybe I should have written the following instead:

    Yay! It’s great that I’m able to win Jane over. She’s hot.

    Now, every the whole sentence is in the present tense. :-)

  9. Ben says:

    Ugh. Typos. I need to get rid of the extra “I” and “every” from the above. It’s been a long day. :-/

  10. Briana says:

    I like Ben’s idea too.

  11. ravi bedi says:

    Is this ok:

    If John was more enterprising, he would have got of at the previous station itself.

  12. Jane says:

    If John were more enterprising, he would have disembarked at the previous station.

  13. Nick says:

    Samuel: “The weather was not, in and of itself, the cause of the traffic delays. The weather was not the cause of the traffic delays. Apparently the first sentence has more information than the second – but I do not see the difference between the two.”

    In the second sentence, it’s ambiguous whether the weather was partly responsible (though not the ultimate cause) or entirely unrelated.

  14. tim says:

    A site about grammar and punctuation, and yet the very first sentence is wrong?

    “To many people,” should be “Too many people,”

    Wow.

  15. tim says:

    Wow. Reading comprehension was not my strong suit. Sorry.

  16. Gavin Spencer says:

    I agree with Ben that simpler is better, but what puzzles me about this little phrase is the utter redundancy of “and of”.

    If one wants to add a little emphasis, why not, The weather was not, in itself, the cause of the traffic delays?

  17. Nigel says:

    I’ve always disliked the phrase ‘in and of itself’. I see it too often in communications both printed (magazine articles) and web sites, blogs etc these days. It was great to to see the discussion here work out a good alternative to this obscure term. I like the form ‘itself’ or maybe ‘in itself’ best.

    Another point to join the discussion:
    Jane: “If John were more enterprising, he would have disembarked at the previous station” has a change in tense and, to me, should read “If John HAD been more enterprising, he would have disembarked at the previous station”…. or “If John were more enterprising, he would disembark at the previous station”. Depends which tense you’re using.
    Any thoughts?

    • Jane says:

      I prefer “If John were more enterprising, he would have disembarked at the previous station” over “If John had been more enterprising…” because this quality in John is current, not in the past. Disembarking at the previous station is simply being used as an example of John’s ongoing lack of enterprise.

      • CHRIS says:

        And yet, “had been” + “would have (done)” is technically correct.

        I can certainly see what you are proposing, Jane, and it does make some sense, a nuance in meaning that is useful.

        The use of “had been”, which, as I stated above, is grammatically correct (to my knowledge), also conveys its own, specific meaning in this sentence. Both possibilities are equally handy to call upon, in my opinion, in much the same way as shall/will or should/would.

        Another thing, perhaps this is one situation where it would be better to rewrite the sentence in some altered form, to make it grammatically correct and be crystal clear:
        If John were a more enterprising person, he would have….

        something along those lines, maybe.

        • Jane says:

          The “If John were more enterprising…” choice, as written in the response of July 4, 2010, for the reason given to Nigel, is still preferred. Rewriting the sentence is also acceptable.

  18. Ursula says:

    Samuel Spriggs,

    The first sentence implies that the weather conditions contributed to traffic delays, but was not the sole cause for them. The second sentence simply states that the weather was not a factor in the delays, at all.

  19. Nick says:

    Wouldn’t “alone” also serve the same function? For example, “The weather alone was not the cause of the traffic delays”.

    I still like using the occasional “in and of itself”, especially in speech. Like it or not, cliched phrases are easier to parse, and phrases in general seem easier to insert into a sentence as you’re synthesizing it.

  20. Jim says:

    I find the phrase “in and of itself” to be pretentious, and it makes me cringe when I here it, like fingernails on a chalk board. It is redundant because you can say “in itself” (heard quite often) or “of itself” (heard much less often). Is far as I can tell, the two mean the same thing, so saying them together is unecessary blather.

  21. Don says:

    For me, it sounds strange to say otherwise. :/

  22. Patrick says:

    Try discussing Immanuel Kant or any other deontologist without it. As nomenclature it’s useful but I agree it should usually be avoided.

  23. Rocklyn says:

    In the example, the use of ‘in and of itself’ exempts the weather as the direct cause of traffic congestion. Rather, it infers that human reaction to the affects of the weather led to problem traffic empirically; traffic – cars – drivers. This is a good example of how reading comprehension is absolutely essential to precise analysis and understanding of the material under consideration. Pure data is beneficial, but color, felicity, emotional content are the true medium of human information exchange.

  24. caleb says:

    I am considering beginning a statement “Nothing is important in and of itself…”, so far it seems to read better than “alone” or “in itself” or “of itself”. To me this “redundancy” is a way of being thorough, and I like to be thorough when I make declarations. Opinions?

    • Jane says:

      I agree that it sounds more complete than using “alone,” “in itself,” or “of itself.”

      • Matt Liu says:

        After seeing Jane’s passing away date, I started to look for the last comment and was puzzled to see this post in her id after that date.

        Thanks anyway.

        • Jane says:

          If you click on the About Jane section from our homepage, you will notice that it says, “Jane wanted The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation and the GrammarBook.com website to survive and flourish in order to serve anyone and everyone seeking to improve English grammar and punctuation skills. Lester Kaufman, her husband of 23 years, along with the skilled staff of our web master, Weblinx Inc., will ensure that Jane’s legacy lives on.”

  25. Barry Western says:

    Being a public school teacher for 19 or so years (that can mean ANYTHING people, that is not a badge of honor- I do not post this to profess an expertise off the English language, hell, I used to say I had eaten the taco quickly! Boy, I paid hell for that and have never forgotten it. I was just writing a letter to a friend of infinite years (creative license), but he’s my best friend, and I just wrote “which worries me in and of itself” for something that is not important to the reader of this post… and I thought, “why did I just automatically write that phrase? I never use it… but it was perfect for this letter I was writing, and I’m not sure why.” So, I looked it up, found this forum, and decided it was the perfect thing to say.

    Hmmm, so I think.
    If the author of a book, letter, communication uses “me in and of itself”, then God bless them! (whoops, I’m agnostic). It is what it is. This is part of the English language. You can argue all you want about how streamlined it is… but that really doesn’t matter. The English language is beautiful… and to tell people they cannot use this expression is like, maybe, sorta like telling people they need to paint those paintings “by the number”. (I don’t know if it’s just me, but those “painting by numbers” are kinda… umm, ugly?)
    Let the author, the artist, paint by words how they want to paint. The beauty of the written language is… if you don’t agree with me… I don’t care! I will write exactly how I want to write. And you know? No one has read my private works, and they will never, but I love to write. Don’t tell me to write by numbers… the English language is too beautiful for that. OK… I’m stepping off my soapbox :-) We should all write the way we want to write. Every sunset is different. Every sentence/paragraph/story is different. They are all beautiful in their own way. That’s all. (am I supposed to write “the end”?)

    • Jane says:

      To write effectively you need to identify the purpose for writing and who makes up your audience. As long as you know what is good grammar and punctuation and what is not, your formal writing may look quite different from your informal writing.

  26. Morghan says:

    All the talk of streamlining the language gives me a cringe with thoughts of newspeak dancing in my head.

    The flourishes are what makes writing great, quick and to the point is for technical manuals.

  27. Seagraves says:

    The words “in” and “of” have real, actual meaning in English and must be used accordingly if they are to be used correctly. “In” is a preposition which is used to indicate inclusion within limits (of space, place, time, or perhaps some abstract thing as in “in the news” or “in trade”). “Of” is a preposition which is used to indicate distance or separation (“It’s a quarter OF three” to indicate 2:45, or “We’re within 3 steps OF the cliff”), derivation or source (“part OF a whole” or “friend OF mine”), or cause or reason (to faint OF exhaustion).

    Therefore, if you really mean to say that “The weather was not, within the limits of itself (or within the limits of what it is by nature) the cause of the traffic delays,” then use “in itself.” If you mean to say that “The weather was not, due to its own causes (or due to those causes of which the weather would inherently be the source), the cause of the traffic delays,” then use “of itself.” If you really, truly want to express both meanings, then it is technically correct to use “in and of itself,” but be aware that this is an overused phrase (that is, cliche’), so even though it may be correct, it will still almost always be poor style. Normally, a writer or speaker really means only one or the other (either “in” or “of”), and not both.

    These are subtle distinctions, but if you understand the actual meanings of each preposition, you can make an intelligent choice in your phrasing without using tired, annoying expressions. Also, because of the subtlety in the meanings, in some cases the use of either “in” or “of” would work equally well. In those cases, using both prepositions would be redundant, so just choose the one that seems to express your true meaning most clearly.

    • Jane says:

      You make some interesting points; thank you for your comments. However, I am not sure that I would write, “The weather of itself was not the cause of traffic delays.” It sounds awkward.

  28. Brittany says:

    I’m currently writing a quick blurb about a few things that agitate me about NC-17 films. (Not intending to be crude or anything.) I just listed a few things that should be changed. One of the things I listed was something that, in and of itself, can be completely off putting. I think “by itself” shouldn’t be used in this case because the thing being described isn’t a noun but a verb.

    Example:

    There are many things that can be done to keep the heart healthy.

    (1) Running, in and of itself, can cause a lowered heart rate.
    (2) Running, by itself, can cause a lowered heart rate.

    “Running alone” shouldn’t be used in this sentence due to multiple meanings of the word “alone.”

    • Jane says:

      Actually, the word “running” in the case of your examples is a noun, not a verb. I do, however, agree that using “running alone” could be confusing for the reader. I think that your first example sounds best.

  29. Sharon says:

    Thanks for the discussion. Hats off to you, Barry. I came to this site because I am writing a formal paper and want to know what is “correct.” I agree with Jane, that in the privacy of my own little world I can speak as colloquially as I please. For example, I spent almost a decade in the Midwest, and I still find the phrase, y’all, to be very useful. I just don’t use it in my professional life.

  30. justin says:

    it is not a filler phrase. it insinuates that as a stand alone whatever given thing would not be a factor but in context it is. such as – “the birds in and of themselves are lovely, but the noise at dusk is terrible.” Not.Filler.

  31. Rob says:

    It is synonymous with the word ‘exclusively’.

  32. Bruce says:

    I hate the phrase, “in and of itself.” It’s banal and pretentious.

  33. Adam says:

    The first sentence could be reworded: “The weather was not solely responsible for the traffic” or “The weather was contributing to the traffic”.
    The latter sentence gives the impression that the weather had absolutely nothing to do with the traffic. I interpret this as the way ‘in and of itself’ should be used.

  34. petrov says:

    All this falls under the category: the art of clear thinking, say what you mean & mean what you say.

  35. Stinker says:

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. I agree with Bruce on this one, “in and of itself” is so overly used, it has lost all meaning besides conversation filler for windbags.
    Since when did adjectives, in and of themselves, become pretentious?
    “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him personally, Horatio”. “What’s in a name, in and of itself? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet, in and of itself.”

  36. GUS says:

    In and of itself is like the “useless” frosting on top the cake. I like to keep it simple so i agree with BEN. More with less. I can see no difference between itself and ” in and off itself.

  37. pier says:

    reading the book in itself was an amazing experience.

    reading the book was an amazing experience in itself.

    if “in itself” is a filler phrase, does it matter where it should appear in a sentence?

    Thanks.

    • Jane says:

      The placement of the phrase in the sentence may subtly imply to the reader whether you are emphasizing the book or the reading experience.

      Reading the book in itself was an amazing experience. (Some readers may interpret that this emphasizes the book.)
      Reading the book was an amazing experience in itself. (This placement clearly emphasizes the reading experience.)

      Using the phrase in and of itself may lend even more emphasis.

  38. Joe says:

    Instead of “in and of itself,” can’t one just say “by itself?” Doesn’t that have the same meaning?

    Example: The weather was not, by itself, the cause of the traffic delays.

    This is tantamount to using “in itself,” but what, pray tell, does “of itself” mean? It is “in itself and of itself…”

    “in and of itself” — just wordy and pretentious!

  39. Thean Onymous says:

    Pretentious and wordy? Such as the use of “pray tell” in Modern English context?

  40. E says:

    Anything wrong with “by itself”?

  41. Daniel G says:

    Why isn’t it in an of itself? Isn’t “an” used when preceding a word starting with a vowel?

    • Jane says:

      You are confusing the word and with the articles a and an. The artice a is changed to an when preceding a word starting with a vowel. The word and does not change.

  42. Austin says:

    Try this one on for size:

    Every day I do the same thing but expect different results. Which is, in and of itself, the definition of insanity.

    • Jane says:

      This is a good example but your second sentence is incomplete as written and should be part of the first sentence. Our Rule 8 of Commas says, “Use commas to set off expressions that interrupt sentence flow.”
      Every day I do the same thing but expect different results, which is, in and of itself, the definition of insanity.

  43. Bill says:

    For those able to distinguish, the distinction is obvious, though perhaps ironic.

  44. Simon says:

    Maybe the fact that a word has a denotation (its ‘official’ meaning) and a connotation (its ‘acquired’ meanings) relates to the ‘of’ and the ‘in’, respectively, in the phrase ‘in and of itself’.

    Teasing the above idea out, ‘weather’ connotations include
    mugginess, blowiness, ‘wild wind whipping the windshield’, blinding flashes and slippery conditions. The denotation of weather is simply ‘the atmospheric conditions’. ‘In and of itself’ then covers both the internal meaning (‘in’ referring to its connotation) and the external meaning (‘of’ referring to its denotative meaning). Maybe the original coiners of this term were legal eagles intent on precision. This phrase ‘in and of itself’ is often used in legal wording, where distinction between connotation and denotation is critical. In everyday usage, though, it becomes clumsy and wordy.

    Better – ‘denotation’ being the stated meaning, ‘connotation’ being the implied (unstated) meaning.

  45. Kirsten says:

    To myself just a moment ago, I tried using that phrase. But it was natural and wonder if I’m wrong?
    I have played one pc game, like a dog with a bone.
    I was shooting for 1,010,000 for my score. My highest has been 1,008,000 for ever and a day.
    Well, I just made that score, BUT……….turns out I was wrong. The correct score I should have been shooting for, is. 1,100,000.
    So I did NOT get my “star”.
    I thought, “well, even if I’m wrong, the score I made “in and of itself” means I actually DID win. I know it’s wrong, because it feels like I still didn’t address something, in that sentence. But that phrase seemed to “have my back” and make it SEEM as if it were correct.?
    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
    Thanks for the definition.

  46. Jeff says:

    I think it would have been helpful to use an example that was not a negative, in which case the meaning of the term would be slightly tweaked:

    “The weather, in and of itself, was responsible for the delay.”

    It would be much better to write

    “The weather was solely responsible for the delay.”
    OR
    “We were (or whatever was) delayed because of the weather.”

    I’m surprised that no one mentioned the Latin equivalent “per se” – or is it also considered pretentious to use terms in Latin?

  47. Greg says:

    Permit me to chip in with another example where “in and of itself” really is the only choice.

    I had a dispute with a major credit reference agency. I had subscribed to a service supposed to alert me by email if anything significant happened to my records. Something did happen, but I wasn’t alerted until four months later. I wrote to them:

    “Your service is, in and of itself, dysfunctional and not fit for purpose [and much more]“.

    I acknowledge that the service cannot function on its own (it needs the Internet at large, my email providers systems, etc), but I’m stating that it is dysfunctional irrespective of any dependencies. The service is, in and of itself, dysfunctional.

    I couldn’t have written “Your service is itself dysfunctional” without first having discussed other possible causes for the malfunction. I also couldn’t have used “solely”, “alone”, or “exclusively” for obvious reasons, and using “per se” implies a conceptual or abstract failure, e.g. that the service serves no useful purpose.

    The sentence could be rewritten to use eg “exclusively”, but I don’t see any merit in that. We could live in a world without colour and music too.

    — G

  48. Steve B says:

    My two cents…

    Example: The weather was not, in and of itself, the cause of the traffic delays.
    (This sentence tells me that the weather was not the only cause of the traffic delays. So, there could have been other factors involved.)

    vs.

    Example: The weather was not the cause of the traffic delays. (This sentence simply tells me that the weather was not cause, nor was it even a factor of the traffic delays.)

    To me, there’s a big difference between the two statements.

  49. cindy says:

    “in and of itself” seems redundant to me.

  50. cindy says:

    You could just say the weather itself ……

    in and of itself is used for people who like to hear themselves talk and try to sound more intelligent. It’s such a stupid phrase.

    • Any cliche sounds silly if you analyze it. What does “by and large” mean? Or “in terms of,” “wrap your brain around,” “cut to the chase,” and millions more. This is why good writers avoid them.

    • Lin says:

      You make a good point, if the intent is to make it seem more important, but, if it is used to emphasis the importance, then you have missed the point.

  51. Zak says:

    In=action
    Of=identity

  52. David Robertson says:

    As others have pointed out, the phrase ‘in and of itself’ has meaning. To establish whether it’s helpful or appropriate in any given case, simply substitute ‘by itself’ and see whether that does or doesn’t add anything to the sentence in question. What’s ‘clunky’ about it is the phrase itself and in particular the ludicrous tautology of using two prepositions – ‘in’ and ‘of’ – where one would suffice. In English English, ‘of itself’ is used more often than the – dare I say it – more verbose American version. David

  53. Morgan says:

    Here’s an example I like to use;

    I think I should get help for my anxiety, but that thought in and of itself makes me anxious.

    I think I should get help for my anxiety, but the thought of getting help makes me anxious too.

    But maybe I’m using it in a different context than what the definition is using.

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