By debbiesym

2017-05-11 16:25:22 8 Comments

I don’t like the phrase "in order to." I think it’s superfluous, and I almost always delete it whenever I see it pop up in something I’m editing.

I’m just wondering — is there a compelling reason to use it in certain circumstances? When might it be necessary? If it isn't necessary, are there times when it might be better to keep it than delete it?


@Sven Yargs 2017-05-11 18:36:25

The sentence

To speak plainly, you need to remove the pebbles from your mouth.

is ambiguous. It may mean

[In order] to speak plainly, you need to remove the pebbles from your mouth.

or it may mean

[If I may be allowed] to speak plainly, you need to remove the pebbles from your mouth.

In such situations, you do your readers or hearers a service by including the words necessary to make your intentions clear, as with

In order to speak plainly, you need to remove the pebbles from your mouth.

But setting aside such unusual situations, I also think that "in order to" is justifiable in many instances as a matter of stylistic preference, whether it is necessary to avoid ambiguity or not. Consider this instance from Henry Neill, "Thoughts on Atonement, with Remarks on the Views of S. T. Coleridge" in The Biblical Repository and Classical Review (July 1849):

Yet as the seed must yield up its old form and die in order to live, so a human soul must [y]ield itself up to God, as God urges His way into it, and thus cause old things to pass away, in order that all things may become new. The soul must, in fact, die in order to live.

You could remove the three instances of "in order"—two before to and one before that—and have no serious difficulty understanding the sense of the passage. But including the extra words does nothing to diminish the tone of the remarks.

More typical (and recent) is this example, from Alasdair MacIntyre (1998), quoted as an epigraph in The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Philosophy of Education (2005):

It is one of the marks of a community of enquiry and learning that, while it cannot but begin from the standpoint of its own cultural and social traditions, what it is able to learn, in order to sustain itself, includes knowing how to identify its own incoherences and errors and how then to draw upon the resources of other alien and rival traditions in order to correct these.

Again the instances of "in order" are not strictly necessary for sense, but they are (in my opinion) thoroughly defensible as a matter of personal style.

That's not to deny that some writers make very bad choices in their use of "in order to." This excerpt from Per-Anders Tengland, Mental Health: A Philosophical Analysis (2001) is a kind of poster child for stupefying overuse of the phrase:

What I need to show is that these abilities are self-evidently needed in order to reach the goals in question (given the environment). Take the following example. In order to open a bottle of wine a person needs a certain agility in order to turn the corkscrew. She also needs some strength in her arms in order to pull up the cork. We might then say that it is necessary to have some agility and strength in order to reach the goal of opening a bottle of wine.

But this example merely shows that as stylists some writers have wooden ears. In my view, systematically eliminating "in order" from the set phrase "in order to" on grounds that it adds nothing useful to a piece of writing is unduly presumptuous and prescriptive—and I say this as a copy editor who has no love for literary lard. A writer may reasonably believe that using "in order to" improves the tone and flow of a sentence, even when the sense of the sentence is readily inferable from "to" alone.

@Janus Bahs Jacquet 2017-05-11 18:46:13

It's worth noting that Tengland is a non-native speaker. His native language (Swedish) does not use a plain infinitive to express what ‘in order to’ means, but rather employs a construction that is very archaic in English: för att ‘for to’. There's a good chance his overuse of ‘in order to’ stems from first-language interference making him feel that a plain infinitive is undermarked. (That's not to say native authors don't commit the same stylistic faux-pas, of course, just to somewhat redeem this particular one.)

@Sven Yargs 2017-05-11 19:37:49

@JanusBahsJacquet: Your comment is valid and (with regard to the Swedish correlative of "in order to") quite interesting—thanks. As you note, similar instances for "in order to" overuse are readily available from native English speakers, such as this one; but the "in order to" plague in the Tengland example was even more concentrated and, therefore, more convenient to use.

@1006a 2017-05-11 23:01:51

I think part of the "style" decisions are related to prosody, as "in order" adds an additional stressed syllable to the introductory phrase. The Preamble to the Constitution wouldn't fit nearly as well into the Schoolhouse Rock song with just "to".

@Sven Yargs 2017-05-11 23:38:56

@1006a: I completely agree with you. Many people have little sense of the extent to which speech is music and writing is sheet music. There are times (unrelated to logical need) when "in order to" fills a line beautifully, and other times when it makes a clause sag under its own weight.

@1006a 2017-05-11 23:57:10

speech is music and writing is sheet music I love that! I wish that we had an easy way to include sound in posts here, as the "sheet music" can't always fully convey what actually hearing the music could.

@John Lawler 2017-05-11 16:38:39

In order to is useful when there's any concern with interpreting an infinitive as a purpose adverb.

For example, stop takes a gerund complement clause

  • He stopped smoking yesterday.

but doesn't take an infinitive clause.
Therefore the sentence

  • He stopped to smoke yesterday

does not mean the same thing as the one with the gerund. But what does it mean?
The infinitive in the second sentence is interpreted as a purpose infinitive.

If you want to be clear about the matter, you can always
insert in order in front of the to of any purpose infinitive:

  • He stopped in order to smoke yesterday.

That sentence means the same as the second sentence.

@MikeRoger 2017-05-11 16:27:15

It is necessary to mull over a question like this, in order to form an opinion, before being able to offer a potentially constructive answer.

@thomj1332 2017-05-11 17:03:31

Watch out! @debbiesym might edit you!

@dangph 2017-05-11 23:54:39

@thomj1332, you need 2,000 reputation for editing power here. Mike is safe for the time being.

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