A Regrettable Shortcut: The Pseudo Conjunction WithBy Eric Wirth
The use of with as a pseudo conjunction weakens prose. To understand how, recall that prepositions govern nouns (as in the first example below), while subordinating conjunctions govern clauses, containing a verb idea (the second example):
The nation struggled with a deepening economic crisis.
The nation struggled as the economic crisis deepened.
A nation can struggle with a crisis—one thing with another. But a nation doesn’t struggle with a crisis deepened. The verb idea (“deepened”) calls for the switch from with to as.
Merriam-Webster and American Heritage present with as a preposition (“With”; “With”). Nevertheless, when writers need to tie together two clauses in a sentence, they sometimes use with as a patch between them:
With the economic crisis deepening, employers cut back on hiring.
Here with is made to serve as a subordinating conjunction (Quirk et al. 9.55). It is stripped of its prepositional meaning (since we can’t understand employers with the crisis deepening), but it has no meaning as a conjunction. With before a clause serves only to mark the clause as describing a vague, free-floating condition.
The pseudo conjunction with is pervasive in journalism:
Part of the port is still a construction site, with work to begin soon on a second grain berth. (Gillet)
Some countries, notably Italy, are worried that shutting the Greek-Macedonian border might only open up new migration routes, with the most likely being a sea crossing from Greece or Albania to Italy. (Pop and Troianovski)
His announcement followed a surge of families opting out of state exams in reading and math last spring, with state data saying about one of five eligible students skipped them. (Brody)
But with the drought turning soil to dust and trees to tinder, the fire, still smoking, has consumed a swath of national forest roughly the size of San Francisco. (Park, Cave, and Andrews)
In the last example above, there is no grammatical relation—hence no explanatory connection—between the drought’s effects on soil and trees and the fire’s advance. One way to establish the relation is to introduce a term that can modify “the fire”:
But, aided by the drought, which has turned soil to dust and trees to tinder, the fire, still smoking, has consumed a swath of national forest roughly the size of San Francisco.
After this revision, the sentence ties its ideas together: the fire is aided by the drought.
Many commentators on usage advise against with as a pseudo conjunction. Bryan Garner calls it a “sloppy construction” (865). Wilson Follett covers it in a larger discussion of the ways that writers misuse with “to bring attendant circumstances into a sentence without analyzing or making clear their relation to the central fact” (363).
Brody, Leslie. “New York Education Task Force Report Expected This Month.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, 3 Dec. 2015, on.wsj.com/21KZpEL. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.
Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Edited and completed by Jacques Barzun, Hill and Wang, 1966.
Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2009.
Gillet, Kit. “Time-Worn Village in Moldova Springs Back to Life, Thanks to Port.” The New York Times, 2 Sept. 2015, nyti.ms/1hyCHdm. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.
Park, Haeyoun, Damien Cave, and Wilson Andrews. “After Years of Drought, Wildfires Rage in California.” The New York Times, 15 July 2015, nyti.ms/1V3luZa. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.
Pop, Valentina, and Anton Troianovski. “Europe Chokes Flow of Migrants to Buy Time for a Solution.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, 31 Jan. 2016, on.wsj.com/20bFusm. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.
Quirk, Randolph, et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1985.
“With.” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/with. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.
“With.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=with. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.
Until his retirement in 2016, Eric Wirth was the head of editorial services at the MLA, where for twenty-seven years he prepared scholarly writing for publication. Previously, he produced reference books at other publishers, after studying French literature in college.
Published 29 February 2016