Ah, “I judge you when you use poor grammar.“, grandest of all Facebook groups! How many of my friends you’ve lured in with your siren song of mockery! What an important niche you’ve filled, at last allowing college students to feel superior to others, salvaging their fragile self-esteem!
All right, enough of my sanctimony. I, like everyone else, judge people when they use non-standard grammar. I like to think that my judgements consist solely of determining the group with which the person identifies themself. For instance, I recognize that the Boost Mobile tagline “Where you at?” is intended to relate to urban culture, whereas my use of the obscure word “sanctimony” at the start of this paragraph is intended to identify myself with the well-educated and -cultured, so that people will accept the anti-authoritarian things I write about grammar. (This use of obscure words is a common tactic of grammatical snobs, along with liberal use of Latin phrases.) Alas, even us linguists sometimes find it difficult to not to end up biased against opinions of writers whose writing is peppered with grammatical improprieties — as witnessed by my previous rant against the Third World Challenge. But even then, at least linguists try to only judge people because of honestly poor grammar, not ipse dixit poor grammar (you see what I mean about Latin phrases?).
So yes, I’m against “I judge you when you use poor grammar.”, largely because half of the so-called errors aren’t errors at all. Of course, that’s also the group’s redeeming quality for my purposes; it is a treasure trove of ill-justified grammatical opinions screaming out to be corrected. Witness, for instance, this pleasant exchange from a few mornings ago:
Terry: What is exactly the problem with “Where are you at?” I mean, the sentence can make sense without the “at” but is it really wrong to include the “at”?
Kate: I can’t believe you actually need to ask that?
Yes, for shame, Terry! Do you not understand that at in Where are you at? is a self-evident abomination? Cast him into the pits, etc., etc.! Except, wait, why is this usage incorrect again? I looked around the Internet, and while I found a lot of people saying it was wrong, I found next to no one justifying it. A brief sampling of the arguments I did find:
- Why can’t you just say “Where are you?” Having “at” at the end does nothing for the sentence, and the sentence cannot be retooled to make sense while including “at.” (link)
- Burchfield refers to “Where are you at?” as a tautologous regional usage. Clearly, we’re better off without the “at.” (link)
- A preposition is a fine word to end a sentence with but the “at” in “Where are you at?” (or “At where are you?”) is just incorrect. (link)
(Burchfield, by the way, is the editor of the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which happens to presently be sitting on the corner of my bed. I looked it up, and he doesn’t justify his proclamation any more than anyone else does. Now that’s ipsedixitism!)
I’ve managed to pull two arguments out of this insistent ether: where are you at? is bad because it ends with a preposition, and where are you at? is bad because the at is unnecessary. Well, the first is a strawman, as repeatedly discussed on Language Log. The notion that sentences ending with a preposition are substandard was a phantasm dreamt up by John Dryden in 1672 to show that he was a better poet than noted Elizabethan bad-ass Ben Jonson. It’s never been true of English that sentence-final prepositions are wrong. So that’s no reason to disallow where are you at?
The other argument is that at is unnecessary, and following the doctrine of Omit Needless Words, anything that is unnecessary should be removed. As I’ve mentioned before: Omit Needless Words is a stylistic preference! There is nothing in the grammar of English that says unnecessary words must, or even should, be omitted. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at a sentence I just used:
(1a) The other argument is that at is unnecessary [...]
(1b) The other argument is at is unnecessary [...]
that in (1a) is, strictly speaking, unnecessary. So why put it in there? BECAUSE OMITTING THAT MAKES THE SENTENCE HARD TO UNDERSTAND!
Does omitting at from where are you at? make the question harder to understand? You might balk at this, but, yes. Yes it can. Consider this anecdotal evidence, from one of the sites complaining about at-inclusion:
Example when I ask a person over the phone (who I know is driving) “Where are you?” They respond “In my car” The answer I am trying to get is maybe a nearby freeway exit. This person then says “Oh you want to know where I’m at?” Then proceeds to tell me what I wanted to know. SO FRUSTRATING!
Hello!? This is the point where one ought to stop and think, “Hmm. Perhaps I’m wrong and the at is actually an important signal in our discourse! Perhaps I therefore ought to stop complaining about it.” But I suppose it’s more fun to hard-headedly careen onward, assuming that strict necessity is the only possible reason to permit a preposition to foul up your exquisitely crafted questions, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a linguistic dunce. And you’re welcome to think that, but don’t come complaining to me that people misunderstand your ruthlessly efficient conversational style.
Maybe someone out there has a reason to prefer where are you? to where are you at? But “clearly we’re better off without the ‘at’”? Not in the least.
Summary: “Where are you at?” is a perfectly fine question. The at isn’t an unnecessary redundancy; it’s sometimes a helpful marker. There’s no reason to outlaw it or even avoid it.