Vice Versa and Vis-à-Vis

By Maeve Maddox

The following quotation appeared in a newspaper article about a school where parents are encouraged to visit their children’s classroom:

the more parent visitors we have, the more they trust us and vis-à-vis. 

I think the principal intended to say, “the more parent visitors we have, the more they trust us and vice versa.”

The only thing the two expressions have in common is that they alliterate.

English vis-a-vis [vee-zuh-vee] is from French vis-à-vis, “face to face.” It can be used as noun, preposition, or adverb.

As a noun, vis-à-vis can refer to:

1. a person or a thing situated opposite another. Example: At the table, my vis-a-vis was a woman dressed all in black and wearing a veil.

2. one’s opposite number or counterpart. Example: At the international conference of editors, my Russian vis-a-vis was a short, chubby man with a cheerful countenance and a ready laugh.

3. a meeting. Example: Reggie’s first vis-a-vis with the new commander left him shaking.

As a preposition, vis-à-vis can be used to mean literally “face to face with,” or in the sense of “in relation to”:

At the town meeting, a farmer sat vis-à-vis the Mayor.
The citizens had called the meeting vis-à-vis a proposed redistricting.

As an adverb, vis-à-vis means “opposite, so as to face each other.” Example: On the mantelpiece the actor’s two Oscars stood vis-à-vis.

The other expression, vice versa [vahys-vur-suh] or [vahy-suh vur-suh], came into English directly from Latin from a word meaning “turn.” It’s used as an adverb meaning “with a reversal or transposition of the main items in the statement just made.”

It can be used with or without a restatement of the previous item:

…the constellations do shift, so that what you see during the summer is overhead during the day in the winter and vice versa, the constellations you saw in winter, are overhead in the summer.

or,

…the constellations do shift, so that what you see during the summer is overhead during the day in the winter and vice versa.

Some bloggers ridicule speakers who pronounce vice versa with four syllables, but they are mean-spirited and uninformed. The OED puts the three-syllable pronunciation first, but acknowledges the four-syllable pronunciation as an alternate. Merriam-Webster puts the four-syllable pronunciation first. As a blogger named ClarE has pointed out, if we want to get picky, maybe we should reject both English efforts and try to pronounce it like classical Latin: [wee-kay wer-sah].

The important thing is not to say vice versa when what you mean is vis-à-vis–and vice versa.

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8 Responses to “Vice Versa and Vis-à-Vis”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Once again, for most writers now, to use phrases from French, Latin, Greek, or German is just an open invitation to get them wrong.

    They do need to go “en masse” into programs for improving their vocabularies in English first and foremost. Learning foreign phrases can come later on.

    It is also true that English does not have simple ways to express “en masse” and “vice versa”. That’s unfortunate.
    In German, there is “massenweise”.
    D.A.W.

  • Matt Gaffney

    If the English language skills of our presumed professionals is so poor that some of them don’t know the difference between “vice versa” and “vis-à-vis” (properly spelled with the “à” in English), then we might as well abandon any effort to educate them and resign ourselves to the victory of ignorance over knowledge.

    Beyond that, the article’s pronunciation guides for both “vice versa” and “vis-à-vis” are both incorrect. Here are the correct pronunciation guides, in order:

    From G&C Merriam Webster—\ˈvēz-ə-ˈvē, ˌvēs- also -ä-ˈvē\ and \ˌvī-si-ˈvər-sə, ˈvīs-ˈvər-\;
    from American Heritage—(vē′zə-vē′) and (vī′sə vûr′ sə, vīs′)

  • venqax

    The pronunciation guides are not wrong. They are simply different systems of notation from the 2 different dictionary creations you chose. They are forms of English-respelling systems which do not use symbols like the inverted lower-case e for the schwa sound or the barred e for a long e sound, but rely only on regular alphabetic characters. Notice the 2 you cite differ on the schwa sound: MW uses the inverted e for the schwa of the a in vis-a-vis and the vowel of the er sound in versa. AH distinguishes them as if they are different sounds– which they are not– using u with the circumflex accent for versa, but the upside-down e symbol for vis-a.

    In the system used by the post, UH is used for the schwa sound, EE for the long E sound, and AHY for the long I sound. So the direction “sounds” the same or dictates the same pronunciations as the MW and AH ones do. IPA, of course, is different still and uses all kinds of exotic symbols that no normal person can read. It may be the most accurate, but is also the least practicle for most purposes. More respelling systems use AI, Y, or even EYE for the long I sound. I think that works better than AH or AHY. UR is most often used for the -er sound of versa. So you get: VEE-ZUH-VEE and VYS VURSA or VYSA VURSA. Or VAIS VURSA.

    Still, the vowel sounds of law and for are not the same!

  • Sylvia

    I have never seen “vis-a-vis” used as a noun or preposition before, and I am 55 years old. I have never seen it used as an adverb, either, with the meaning “face to face.” The only context I have ever seen it used was as a fancy way of saying “regarding” or “pertaining to” a matter. How strange this is.

  • venqax

    1) Last should read: VY-SUH VUR-SUH or VYS VUR-SUH

    2) I have to second Sylvia in part. The context in which I have always seen (and used) vis-a-vis would seem to fit the post’s definition:

    As a preposition, vis-à-vis can be used … in the sense of “in relation to”:

    But the example of this given does not really fit the context I’m thinking of. The example seems to mean someothing like “regarding”:

    The citizens had called the meeting vis-à-vis a proposed redistricting.

    I would use it to mean something like “in comparison to”. E.g., “Let’s talk about the 2 albums vis-a-vis their guitar sounds”. Yes? No?

  • Maeve Maddox

    Venqax,
    Yes, “in comparison to” is one of the meanings given in the OED entry for vis-à-vis as a preposition.

  • venqax

    The other meanings are interesting. I’ve never heard them before, so I’m going to strive to incorporate them into my vis-a-vis language vis-a-vis not. And vice versa.

    Is vice versa versa vice redundant vis-a-vis each other? 🙂

  • Chad

    The last line of this article is epic. “The important thing is not to say vice versa when what you mean is vis-à-vis–and vice versa.” I chuckled.

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