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I wrote a vision statement for a project using the term vis-à-vis (All X investments should be justified vis-à-vis quantified gain). A colleague suggested I shouldn't use vis-à-vis, and prefer simpler verbiage like "in relation to".

The colleague is a native English speaker, I'm not (nor a French speaker). I'd like to write clearly, but also not too drily. I thought vis-à-vis is perfectly fine, and seems to appear commonly enough in Google search results.

Would you recommend vis-à-vis for a global corporate-English speaking audience? And how would you recommend I check these things in the future?

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    Possibly relevant usage example w.r.t vis-à-vis, which some (many?) people might be remembered off (not the parody, but the original..). At least that was my first association when reading the question title.
    – ojdo
    Jul 6 at 13:27
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    Can I suggest the phrase with regards to (or similarly, regarding) as a substitution that has essentially the same flexibility and use as vis-a-vis?
    – Aristides
    Jul 7 at 5:02
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Most answers so far have not addressed this specific context, and instead are addressing use of this phrase in writing more generally.

Vis-à-vis is not unusual as a piece of corporate jargon, and would not seem out of place in material produced for a global corporate-English speaking audience.

That said, use of jargon often serves to strengthen existing structural imbalances (only those already in the field have had the opportunity to learn the jargon, which then enables them to proceed more efficiently, progressing faster) & runs the risk of sounding buzzword-y; so it is usually advisable to avoid it where reasonably possible.

So, in this particular case, I don't think it would be especially out of place, or inappropriate to use, but using an alternative is probably still preferable.

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    Agreed that it's fine to use, but disagree that it's jargon. It's just a regular English phrase (like many such phrases, adapted from our long history of French influence).
    – Tiercelet
    Jul 6 at 14:14
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    a lot of jargon is (or at least comes from) regular English. Many native English speakers are unfamiliar with the phrase, and it is far more common in corporate contexts than others. That sounds pretty solidly an example of jargon (albeit not a prototypical one) to me
    – Tristan
    Jul 6 at 14:43
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    While this is answer is less upvoted, and while I agree with the answer DWKraus gave, I found this answer most useful, so accepting it. Thank you! Jul 7 at 13:26
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Showing Off:

This is old-fashioned and unfortunately kind of high-brow. Depending on the audience, they are likely to just not get it/understand, and you risk sounding pretentious. Unless you're trying to impress your reader with the sophistication of your writing, it probably is better to avoid this. It is, however, technically correct. In the right circumstances, it could work.

This is one of those language uses that is very dependent on using the language to convey meaning rather than words. English is full of this messy stuff, and it makes English a beautiful, colorful language. It also makes English a huge pain in the butt.

This might be a better question for English SE, and perhaps that might be a better resource for future similar questions.

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    I'd really be inclined to disagree that this is showing off. Vis-a-vis is a phrase that anyone who is fairly well read should be familiar with, it's not as though Yaniv is using an obscure latin phrase that nobody will have ever heard of. Jul 6 at 10:02
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    @Persistence I disagree. One can easily read hundreds of books without ever stumbling upon that term. Even when people are familiar with it, it doesn't mean it is used properly. Vis-à-vis works properly in writing when trying to create a speech for an obnoxious egocentric character (because that's what it makes one sound like), but apart from that is very hard to fit it somewhere and make it work.
    – T. Sar
    Jul 6 at 13:31
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    @T.Sar "Obnoxious egocentric character?" Oh come on. It's a perfectly ordinary English usage. If OP is getting pushback from colleagues, deferring to them is fine, but if anything it's less pretentious than the awkward "in relation to."
    – Tiercelet
    Jul 6 at 14:17
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    With all due respect, are you a native English speaker @T.Sar? I only ask because I am and it's generally considered neither pretentious nor obnoxious here in the UK Jul 6 at 14:20
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    Personal note in relation to "showing off": I saw an interview with Kate Mulgrew, who played Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek Voyager. In this interview she used the phrase vis-à-vis so many times I grew sick of it and came away not liking her as a person because of her arrogance.
    – RobJarvis
    Jul 6 at 14:33
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Vis-a-vis has multiple meanings, which are:

  • in relation to (if used as preposition)
  • opposed to (if used as an adverb)
  • face to face meeting (if used as a noun)
  • a counterpart (if used as a noun)

Deciphering which one you meant, especially for someone who is not perfectly fluent (and many natives as well), might be a nightmare.

There is a reason we try to use simple straightforward English in business settings, and that reason is to reach a broad and diverse audience with varying levels of fluency in the English language and present information in an easily digestible manner.

If I was forced to read flowery business prose containing gems like this, I'd probably silently curse the author and would not give him a nice review. Want to use language like that? Write fiction!

I do love to read and listen to Shakespeare and Poe, but that does not mean I like to stop reading every business proposal to Google the meanings of phrases used.

Business English (aside from marketing and corporate-speak) is there to be simple and to the point, to give you a clear image without the need of being fluent in English.

It's basically there to be a step up from pidgin English and waving your hands frantically to simulate your need for water/food/currency exchange/your desire to build a new oil platform off the coast of Belize...

That is, sadly, my definition for it.

But man proposes, nature disposes and in the end, the business communication will use whatever it can get away with.

Are you writing a document for a company of English language majors, you yourself being one?

Go on, let them know of your knowledge of the Queen's English.

Are you a Chinese businessman who built himself up from a store clerk to a head of a multinational corporation?

Use English first-graders in Central Europe would be chastised for.

In the end, what you can and can not use will be shaped out of your own limitations and the limitations of your audience.

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    I find your list of meanings surprising. In Polish we also use "vis-à-vis", but here it means "facing each other", e.g. "X vis-à-vis Y" means "the X which is facing Y".
    – user31389
    Jul 6 at 20:29
  • It's a terrible and pretentious term in my view. I never understand why people use it. For all senses of the word, there are more common / older / more specific terms (and no longer) that are equally viable. Nor does it offer any shades of meaning or nuance that the other terms don't.
    – Noldorin
    Jul 6 at 23:29
  • Your definition of business English is amusing, but are you being facetious? Jul 7 at 12:25
  • @PeterMortensen Maybe I'm a bit flippant, but I don't see this as a very serious issue. There are no lives or careers hanging in the balance and I felt the need to put my own log into the fire of the discussion. It's there, doesn't seem to offend anyone terribly, and even though it might have been worded better it describes my stance on the matter well enough.
    – mishan
    Jul 7 at 12:43
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Depending on circumstance I probably would use vis-à-vis. But not, as has been pointed out, for a foreign audience.

I once had someone complain about a sign I printed for him: Mater Misericordæ

Me: It's not a printing problem. It's a Latin vowel.

Him: Why the hell are you using Latin vowels?

Me: They're Latin words.

Him: What?! It's the name of a [censored] hospital!

Me: The use of Latin is traditional in medicine. That sign says "Mother of Mercy" in Latin. The last letter is a diphthong. A diphthong is two vowels run together without a consonant between them-

Him: [censored] me! I hire a computer person and get a foreign language expert. Look, the hospital administrators aren't going to understand. Print it again with a bit less university, OK?

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  • +1, use of "fancy" words are highly dependent on the audience, though I would hope hospital administrators took "enough university" to understand diphthongs... Jul 6 at 18:54
  • @AlexandreAubrey It's not in the curriculum unless you study languages. University hasn't been about education for more than forty years, they're all too busy trying to be "relevant" which is manifest either as vocational training or as political correctness twaddle.
    – Peter Wone
    Jul 6 at 22:15
  • FWIW, I am "a foreign audience", and I have no trouble with the meaning of the word vis-à-vis. Jul 8 at 21:40
  • @JörgWMittag Indeed, and my French wife used to beat me at Scrabble in English. But you can't assume all readers are so well educated.
    – Peter Wone
    Jul 9 at 7:45
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I disagree with several of the previous answers on this specific phrase--which I find perfectly natural and ordinary, and would expect most speakers to understand. (Even just from context, on the off chance they hadn't seen it before.) But clearly there is some variance among different speakers' idiolects vis-a-vis this phrase... If there's a lesson here, it's to expect & be more accepting of variation in other speakers.

But I think the useful part of this question goes beyond taking a survey about a particular turn of phrase. The larger lesson is that you should always strive to be very precise in the message conveyed by your writing. Yes, even at the level of word choice, even at the level of prepositions. And especially in presentations, section headings, topic sentences, etc., which need to be both pithy and precise.

That's the real failing of your example sentence: All X investments should be justified vis-à-vis quantified gain. Sure, you could replace "vis-a-vis" with "in regards to". But that doesn't make the relationship any more precise--you're just saying 'these things are somehow related.' I expect you really mean that the investments need to be justified by some quantified gain. If you're trying to express a necessary and causal relationship, it gets obscured by the choice of preposition. So you're probably better off with something like "Every X investment must be justified by a quantified gain" or "The gain from every X investment should be quantifiable" or something else that more closely captures the exact meaning you want to express.

The real concern is not just "Will my audience understand the words I use?"--though that is of course essential--it is also "Do the words I'm using accurately convey my meaning?"

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  • How do you know he didn't expand on the details in the next sentence? Trying to stuff everything into a single sentence would be far worse.
    – Peter Wone
    Jul 9 at 7:55

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