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TWTS: Looking for redundancy in "in and of itself"

Apparently, "in and of itself” is the source of some concern about redundancy. This phrase wasn’t actually on our radar until a listener brought it up at our most recent Grammar Night event.

The listener wanted to know whether the phrase is redundant. Why would you need to say “in and of itself” when you could just say “in itself”?

When someone brings a particular phrase to our attention, we find it’s often because its use is on the rise. Even though “in and of itself” has been around since at least the 18th century, it has seen a dramatic increase since the middle of the 20th century.

The phrase breaks down to two parts: "in itself" and "of itself." If you look at the history of both of these shorter phrases, there is an arguable difference.

"In itself" means it's in something's nature or essence, by the very definition of it. For example, you might say, “Generosity in itself is good, but it also makes you happy.” In other words, generosity is already good on its own, but it has the additional benefit of personal happiness.

"Of itself" historically meant by its own will, without instigation from others. Here’s an example from 1707: "The goats would many of them come of themselves to be milked." That is, the goats showed up for milking without any prodding or human intervention. 

Somehow, these two shorter phrases combined to form "in and of itself." Some may feel that this is redundant, but you could also argue that it's emphatic. You're saying this is what it is, both in its essence and without any other intervening factors.

Here’s another question, do we even need a preposition for these phrases? For example, instead of “the idea that speaking to Russia is in itself a crime,” couldn’t we say, “the idea that speaking to Russia is itself a crime”? Using “in” may feel more colloquial, but it doesn’t seem necessary.

In the end, this is just a place where there's a lot of variation. You'll see "itself" all by itself, you'll get "in itself," and, emphatically, you'll get "in and of itself." The choice is yours.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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