A Regrettable Shortcut: The Pseudo Conjunction With

By 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).

Works Cited

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.

Published 29 February 2016

5 comments on “A Regrettable Shortcut: The Pseudo Conjunction With

  1. I find that the use of “with” as a conjunction could, and probably should, be accepted and even celebrated as an enriching addition to the English language. In all but one of the examples you offered, “with” is used to introduce a gerund whose subject is not the same as that of the main clause. This is a natural development in the language which adds to its flexibility. Why should the adoption of one new way to build a sentence be met with an intellectual pitchfork rebellion?

    The fact that the use of “with” as a conjunction is not described in popular dictionaries is not sufficient to call it a “pseudo conjunction” and certainly not to assert that its use as a conjunction “weakens the prose”. Clearly, usage of a new word or structure precedes its inclusion in any dictionary, and, as you pointed out yourself, this construction enjoys widespread usage even in prestigious publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

    • I think the explanation is clear that “with” carries little or no indication of the relation between the phrases or clauses it is sometimes used to connect. A subordinating conjunction usually clarifies this connection.

  2. I can’t agree with Alexander V. above to the point of celebrating this evolution of the language, but I think we must accept that “with” has evolved in common usage. Regrettable as the evolution may be, a project to stamp out this sloppiness would probably be ineffective since it’s become a convenient means of adding and modifying ideas. As Wirth points out, revision–that too-often neglected chore–easily solves it.

  3. I don’t care much for these “with” constructions, which smack of journalism-ease, but if you want to get rid of them on because they lack a grammatical connection to the rest of the sentence, wouldn’t you also, on this basis, have to argue against the absolute phrase?

    In the following example, I prefer to drop the “with,” to make a regular absolute phrase. This strikes me as a perfectly fine sentence.

    “Some countries, notably Italy, are worried that shutting the Greek-Macedonian border might only open up new migration routes, the most likely being a sea crossing from Greece or Albania to Italy.”

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