What is the difference if I would say - justify something by something, instead of - justify something to something. Would it better say - justify something to somebody. Why here the author used preposition 'to'?

Ministers agreed that this decision was fully justified by economic conditions.

Example from Collings dictionary.

You will see that Charles set his sights high. Intelligent idlers always have, in order to justify their idleness to their intelligence. He had, in short, all the Byronic ennui with neither of the Byronic outlets: genius and adultery.


  • Please ask only one question per post. Feb 10, 2019 at 13:41

3 Answers 3


We always justify something to someone, even if that person is ourself.

Intelligent idlers always have, in order to justify their idleness to their intelligence.

This is unusual. It identifies a person with that person's intelligence. In that case the person is an idler.

It's a form of personification.

Personification is a figure of speech in which a thing – an idea or an animal – is given human attributes. The non-human objects are portrayed in such a way that we feel they have the ability to act like human beings. For example, when we say, “The sky weeps,” we are giving the sky the ability to cry, which is a human quality. Thus, we can say that the sky has been personified in the given sentence. https://literarydevices.net/personification/


"Justify X to Y" is the usual idiom: "If you break the law you will have to justify your actions to the judge". It means explain your actions to somebody.

Here it is being used figuratively. The author imagines the person’s intelligence as judging them, and if they are lazy, they have to explain why they are lazy to their intelligence.

Ennui is a rare word meaning "elegant boredom and listlessness arising from a lack of occupation". The upper-class Romantics, such a Byron, cultivated a persona of "ennui" to justify ever greater extravagant gestures.

For Ennui is a growth of English root,
  Though nameless in our language:—we retort
    The fact for words, and let the French translate
      That awful Yawn which Sleep cannot abate.

  • So - 'to their intelligence' is a figure of speech or personification what literally means 'by their intelligence'. In any case with 'by' it sounds easier for me. I don't see any difference regardless of language.
    – Vitaly
    Feb 10, 2019 at 15:41
  • "Justify A to B" is the expression. Here there is personification of intelligence. It's figurative langage, but not a figure of speech. You would not say "justify my crime by a judge" but you could say "Justify my crime to a judge"
    – James K
    Feb 10, 2019 at 15:49
  • I thought about figurative langage of couse not figure of speech. But I can say for example - He justifies his lazzyness by his intelligence. Why not? It is about sense at all, not about excerpt from the book.
    – Vitaly
    Feb 10, 2019 at 16:38
  • If a person imagines himself as a judge can I say figuratively - Person justifies something by something.? I google and find this: "Delay in the administration of justice ceases to be voluntary when the judge justifies it by reference to some point of law or some impediment which cannot be removed." the judge (person) justifies it by reference.
    – Vitaly
    Feb 12, 2019 at 8:38
  • I don't quite follow. But I think you don't understand the personification here. The person does not imagine himself to be a judge. Instead he imagines "his intelligence to be a judge*. He personifies his intelligence as a separate person. So, he must explain why he is being lazy to his intelligence.
    – James K
    Feb 12, 2019 at 8:42

The prepositions “by” and “to” represent very different relationships. Often, “by” indicates a means or an agency, but “to” indicates a target or a recipient.


. . . this decision was fully justified by economic conditions.

Here, “by economic conditions” represents the agent of the passive-voice clause. In the active-voice equivalent, agency is represented by the subject:

Economic conditions fully justified this decision.


Intelligent idlers justify their idleness to their intelligence.

This is an active-voice clause which is similar to the infinitive phrase in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Here, the agent is represented by the subject. The phrase “to their intelligence” represents the target of the action or the recipient of the justification.

The intelligent idlers themselves and the intelligence of those idlers are two different things, playing two different roles in this clause.

The original context also includes a means, which could be introduced by the preposition “by”:

Intelligent idlers justify their idleness to their intelligence by setting their sights high.

Here, the intelligence and the act of setting are two different things, each with a different relationship to the verb “justify”. The intelligence is a target, and the setting is a means. Those are not interchangable relationships, and those are not interchangable prepositions.

  • Ok. I understand fully what you say. How to say in English - Do not justify your idleness by(with) setting your sights high - from your example without 'to their intelligence'. Or from my example - Do not justify your lazzyness by(maybe 'with') your intelligence. When the recipient of the justification is not important. In Russian languege there is The instrumental case for that.
    – Vitaly
    Feb 11, 2019 at 10:23
  • I want to get to the bottom of this because of for Russian language - 'to justify their idleness to their intelligence' as you explain, sounds rediculous even figuratively.
    – Vitaly
    Feb 11, 2019 at 11:13
  • Charles is rationalizing. He’s found a justification for being idle that his intelligence can accept. Why isn’t he doing something worthwhile? Well, it’s hard to find something to do that’s worth his while. That might not be the real reason, but it’s a good enough explanation that his mind doesn’t simply reject it. Right or wrong, it seems to make sense. His intelligence is the target or recipient of this justification. Feb 11, 2019 at 16:14
  • Yes. I agree with you who is Charles. I think the problem is Languages. For Russian 'his intelligence' is a means, not the recipient because of I tended to find right interpritation. For Russian it is enough to say - 'Intelligent idlers justify THEIR idleness.' It means that they turn to thenselve or to their intelligence .
    – Vitaly
    Feb 11, 2019 at 16:44
  • In English, the noun “intelligence” can serve quite a number of roles. It could be a means, or a target, or an agent. Using it as an agent, I can say “his intelligence demands an explanation” and even “his intelligence accepts this justification”. It would surprise me to learn that Russian doesn’t provide a similar flexibility. Intelligence as target or intelligence as recipient may be unusual, but it remains sensible. He gives this excuse to the rational and inquisitive parts of his own mind. He gives it to his intelligence. Feb 11, 2019 at 17:47

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