Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Such as and/or such X as?

In a review of the 2011 film of Jane Eyre, a student wrote the following:
... they were joined by an equally great supporting cast, featuring actors such as Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.
I'm curious about that use of "such as". To me, it implies that Judi Dench and Jamie Bell are not only in the film but also the type of actors who are in the film. That is, from the name "Judi Dench", I should be able to make some pretty good guesses about who the other members of the supporting cast might be. That is, I read it as similar to this example (stolen from the COCA corpus):
It could be damage that happened as the result of an acute injury, such as spinal cord damage.
Here, "spinal cord damage" is an example of "an acute injury," and I can make some pretty guesses as to other members of that category. And I can't really do that with "actors such as Judi Dench and Jamie Bell."

However, I could do it with "featuring great actors, such as JD and JB." So it seems that the problem derives from two things: "actors" by itself seems odd with "such as" (as "an injury" by itself would in the above sentence?), and the absence of a comma before "such as" (though I'm not sure why that absence should be important here).

I actually prefer a different solution: "featuring such actors as JD and JB." To my ear, this implies that the named actors share some characteristic (probably "greatness"?) that is then also shared by the other members of the supporting cast. Even here, though, it would be a bit better to have that characteristic named, wouldn't it? "... featuring such great actors as JD and JB."

Why write all this up? First of all, to ask others what they think about the uses of "such as". And secondly, because I'm worried that I might be just peeving about something that is not as precise in other people's usage as I somehow expect it to be. If I'm just peeving about my own personal taste, then I know that I should just keep quiet about it. Along the lines recently suggested by Geoffrey Pullum: "The idea is that I will concentrate on my own usage rather than other people's."


Jonathon Owen said...

I see "such as" in both cases (the actors and the acute injury) as introducing notable examples. It says, in effect, "Here are just a few, but there are others." You may or may not be able to extrapolate what those others are based on the context and the type of thing they are.

I don't see "actors such as" and "such actors as" as being any different. To me, at least, they mean the same thing.

Andrew Shields said...

"Introducing notable examples" (your sense) but not necessarily ones that share any explicit or implicit or unstated characteristics (as I hear the one case). Thanks! That helps me see the situation more clearly.

Andrew Shields said...

I just found a page discussing the "such as/like" issue that also touches on "such X as/X such as". In a paragraph about Fowler's actual usage (and not his comments on usage), the author, Mark Israel, say that Fowler uses "such X as" "when using examples to define the set" but uses "X such as" "when the words preceding the examples sufficed to define the set".

While this appears to be the distinction I was trying to make, it also makes clear that the distinction is ... well, a bit of hair-splitting.

Here's the page in question: