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We’re all Rolling Stones fans here, right? I mean, we’re all here on a grammar blog, so I don’t think I’m jumping to too wild a conclusion to assume that we’re almost all oldsters, whether in actual age or personality. So let’s talk about the classic “Get Off of My Cloud”:

As it turns out, the Stones weren’t terribly fond of this song; they felt it was a rushed follow-up to the runaway success of “Satisfaction”. But some grammar peevers dislike it for an unrelated reason:

“‘Off of’ is no way to talk. It IS really, really bad English.”

Hatred of off of is widespread. It pops up commonly in peeve lists. Some professional grammar commentators share this complaint: the quote above is from Patricia O’Conner of Grammarphobia*, and Grammar Girl tersely dismisses it with “You jump off the pier, not off OF the pier”.

So what’s supposedly wrong with off of? The main problem seems to be that the of is unnecessary, but another common one is that since it’s on and not on of, it must be off and not off of. I also see complaints that it’s dialectal or informal or American, that one can’t put two prepositions next to each other, or that it ought to be from. And worse, given all of these problems, the phrase is supposedly spreading.

Let’s take these in reverse order. First, I’m unconvinced that it’s spreading, unless you’re talking about a very recent (last 20 years) spread. Here’re the Google Books counts, and you’ll note that modern off of usage is still below its peak in 1910. The Corpus of Historical American English has a slightly different picture, with more-or-less stable usage from 1900 to the 1980s, and then a jolt up in the 90s and 2000s. Maybe it’s spreading, maybe not. But let’s talk about why it’s not bad either way.

I’ll start with the easiest objections. No, it shouldn’t just be from. Consider:

(1a) The numbers station is broadcasting from a shed off of Route 395.
(1b) *The numbers station is broadcasting from a shed from Route 395.

And yes, you can put two prepositions next to each other, as in this unobjectionable example:

(2) I pulled a coat out of the closet.

Going on to a somewhat more complex objection, antonymic phrases do not have to share structures or prepositions. The fact that you get on and not on of a train doesn’t mean that you have to get off and not off of it. Consider:

(3a) I put the sandwiches into the picnic basket, but someone has pulled them out of it.
(3b) One velociraptor was in front of Muldoon, the other next to him.

And now on to the involved discussions. One question is whether off is always sufficient, and off of thus always unnecessarily wordy. And the answer, I think, depends on that of a second question: whether off of is dialectal.

In my idiolect, off of is perfectly standard. I was probably in my twenties before I heard someone object to it. That’s not to say I can’t use off without of. To the contrary, I prefer (4) without of, though both forms are acceptable to me:

(4) The leaves fell off the tree.

That said, of is not always superfluous to me. A few examples where I find removing of to make the sentence noticeably worse:

(5a) It’s a way of profiting off of something you expect to drop in value.
(5b) My new invention will knock the socks off of the scientific community.
(5c) I broke your statue by knocking the top off of it.

You may not agree, even if you come from an off of idiolect, that these forms are better, but that’s not important. The key point is only that sometimes, to some people, off of is distinctly more mellifluous than off. Dismissing off of out of hand as superfluous is valid only in dialects that already don’t allow it.

Let me elaborate this “necessity depends on dialect” point by proposing an insane argument. I’ve mentioned before that, being from Pittsburgh, I am perfectly content to say The car needs washed instead of The car needs to be washed. Within my dialect, to be is often superfluous, and there are some sentences that I find greatly improved by omitting it. Thus, I could see arguing that to be is, at least sometimes, unnecessary. But if I argued this to someone speaking a “standard” dialect of English, I would sound crazy. Saying that of in off of is across-the-board unnecessary sounds equally crazy to me.**

So is off of dialectal and/or informal? The answer would seem to be yes to both. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it “only colloq. (nonstandard) and regional” in current use. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says it’s “primarily a form used in speech”. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says it’s avoided at “Planned and Oratorical levels and in Semiformal and Formal writing.”

Those sources are generally pretty trustworthy with their opinions, and given the amount of people who find off of unacceptable, I’m inclined to believe that it really is dialectal. When that’s coupled with its primarily spoken usage patterns, it’s no surprise that it would feel informal, especially to people from other dialects. And using the Corpus of Contemporary American English as a measuring stick of informality, off of occurs in speech twice as often as in written fiction, about four times as often as in newspapers/magazines, and almost ten times as often as in academic writing. The more formal the style, the less likely you’ll see off of.

All that said, its informality doesn’t mean it’s an illiteracy. Off of used to be standard in English; the MWDEU starts off with a Shakespearean usage [1592] and continues with Pepys [1668] and Bunyan [1678]. In the last century, they show it used by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Harry Truman, among others. So if it is making a comeback, it’s no harbinger of linguistic doom, just a return to form.

Summary: There is nothing linguistically or grammatically wrong with off of. It’s nonstandard in some dialects and informal in most, so you should probably avoid it if you’re concerned about your writing seeming formal. But when formality isn’t a concern, use it as you see fit.

*: This is a surprising stance, because it comes from Patricia O’Conner of Grammarphobia, who’s normally a lot less judgmental about such things. In fact, three years later, she softened her stance, although she remains against off of. I included her original opinion because her reconsideration shows that even hard-line opinions can (and should) be altered in the face of evidence, so long as the commentator is reasonable.

**: In fact, I and others within my dialect seem to have strong intuitions about times when the to be can and can’t be felicitiously dropped, in the same way as I see off of. It’s not a matter of necessity but of felicity.

Every time I mention the no-sentence-final-prepositions rule as an example of unfounded prescriptivism, I always get a response from someone along the lines of “Oh, no prescriptivist actually believes that anymore.” I assure you some still do. Others have rejected the blanket prescription that all sentence-final prepositions are unacceptable, but they’ve replaced that idea with a strange half-prescription that only some final prepositions are okay. In either case, they’re still wrong.

Let’s review the basic history of the idea that you shouldn’t end clauses (especially complete sentences) with prepositions. The entire idea that there is something wrong with sentence-final prepositions was popularized by John Dryden back in the 17th century. Looking over a play by Ben Jonson from 1611 (around 60 years before Dryden was writing), Dryden remarked on Jonson’s line “The bodies that those souls were frighted from“, noting

“The Preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observ’d in my own writings.”

Dryden never saw fit to explain why this sentence-final preposition was a fault.* Before, during, and after the 17th century, sentence-final prepositions have been commonplace in speech and writing. No one’s ever really had a good explanation for why they’re opposed to them. The only reason you’d want to avoid clause-final prepositions is that they aren’t common in formal writing, and that’s the case largely because of the misguided prohibition against them.

But mistaken beliefs die the hardest, and so people still occasionally point out sentence-final prepositions to me as an obviously bad thing. It’s irritating enough when these are people who have no reason to know any better and are merely reciting out-of-date prescriptions. It’s much worse when it’s someone who clearly should know better out there advocating that there is a germ of truth in the preposition lie. For instance, I saw on Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Grammar Myths that she says it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. But only sometimes:

You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition when the sentence would mean the same thing if you left off the preposition. That means ‘Where are you at?’ is wrong because ‘Where are you?’ means the same thing. But there are many sentences where the final preposition is part of a phrasal verb or is necessary to keep from making stuffy, stilted sentences: ‘I’m going to throw up,’ ‘Let’s kiss and make up,’ and ‘What are you waiting for’ are just a few examples.”

So don’t allow a sentence-final preposition unless the revision is worse. But that advice only makes sense if there is something inherently wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. Note that (like Dryden) Grammar Girl does not address the issue of why sentence-final prepositions are ever bad, instead taking it as given. In fact, in a longer piece on sentence-final prepositions, she writes

When you could leave off the preposition and it wouldn’t change the meaning, you should leave it off. Really, I can’t believe anyone would make such a silly mistake!”

Apparently it’s such a silly mistake that it need not be justified. But if sentence-final prepositions are so silly, then presumably you can only leave them in if the alternative is really awkward, even more awkward than the silly sentence-final prepositions would be.

If we look back at Grammar Girl’s acceptable final-preposition sentences — “I’m going to throw up,” “Let’s kiss and make up,” and “What are you waiting for?” — it’s trivial to make reasonable versions without the final prepositions: “I’m going to barf”, “Let’s kiss and reconcile,” “Why are you waiting?”. If you find sentence-final prepositions to be worth avoiding, I can’t see why you wouldn’t switch to these prepositionless alternatives. Unless, and I’m only going out on a limb here, your proscription is totally arbitrary.

You might argue, as I think Grammar Girl is doing, that there’s a difference in that the for in What are you waiting for? needs to be in the sentence as written, while the at in Where are you at? could be omitted. The latter sentence therefore goes against Strunk & White’s famous Omit Needless Words dictum. However, as many reasonable people have pointed out (look at this Jan Freeman column, for instance), Omit Needless Words is not a grammar rule of English, no matter how hard Strunk & White try to convince you otherwise. In fact, let me illustrate it with part of the first sentence of Grammar Girl’s own article:

” […] ending a sentence with a preposition is often unfairly labeled ‘undesirable grammar construction number one’ by people who were taught that prepositions have a proper place in the world […]”

All three of those bolded words could be removed without hurting the syntax of the sentence. That would leave us with the sentence “[it’s labelled undesirable by] people taught prepositions have a proper place in the world”, which is a real rubbish sentence. Sure, you could remove these words, but you’ll make the sentence hard to parse. If you want even stronger examples of Omit Needless Words taking you places you don’t want to go, consider these two famously incomprehensible psycholinguistic examples:

(1a) The horse raced past the barn fell.
(1b) The coach smiled at the player tossed the frisbee.

It is often good to avoid wordiness and rambling. Brevity is the soul of wit and all that. (I’m sure that, after getting this far into this post, you doubt I believe either of those statements.) But there is a difference between rambling and including a two-letter preposition of debatable necessity. You are not required to drop every word you can, nor are you supposed to. Merely being able to remove a word is not sufficient reason to do so.

Grammar Girl should know that, and at some unconscious level, she does. A reader pointed out that she herself said in one podcast “That’s where it’s at.” That’s standard in informal English, because you don’t end sentences with it’s**, and adding at suddenly makes the sentence valid again. But instead of noting this as evidence against the made-up preposition-proscription, she embarrassedly apologized for it. There’s no need to. You know it’s right, Grammar Girl! To thine own language be true.

Summary: There’s no reason to muck about with silly half-proscriptions. Clause- and sentence-final prepositions are always grammatical, although they can sound informal due to the 400 years of exile they’ve had to endure. Listen to your sentence and decide for yourself whether the final preposition sounds appropriate for the formality level you’re aiming at.

*: David Crystal, in The Fight for English, notes that Dryden was against ending sentences with “an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word” because this reduced their “strength”, but he gave no further reason, nor any reason specific to prepositions. And Dryden regularly broke this rule, ending sentences in his own grammar book with such inconsiderable words as it or him.

**: I was tempted to say you don’t end sentences with any contractions, but then I remembered the once-cool Jimmy Eat World song If You Don’t, Don’t. I think only not-contractions can end sentences, but I’m not willing to bet on it.

Jan Freeman, blogger and columnist for the Boston Globe, is one of those people that I aspire to become. She addresses more or less the same issues as I do in this blog: pointing out when overzealous prescriptivists have overstepped the bounds of English grammar in their attempts to convert English into their own personal Byzantine wonderland. In fact, the main difference between us, I think, is that she does this with the conciseness, precision, and effectiveness that I can only dream of eventually mastering.

I was reminded of this because I had had two ideas bouncing around in my head for months, unable to figure out how to put them together into a coherent post.  The first: it is bad to be obsessed with Omitting Needless Words. The second: prescriptivists make things up seemingly out of thin air. Thankfully, Jan took both of those ideas, wrote them up in the newspaper, and scored two direct hits against the prescriptivist ramparts.  I highly recommend reading both columns and freeing yourself from the shackles of prescriptivism.  (Well, really I recommend reading all of her columns, but I assume you have other things that need done today.)

And if you doubt the power Jan has in this world, it was her column, and not my post, about the “Some prescriptivists argue not should not conclude a sentence” claim that led to its being removed from Wikipedia. That’s right — she can get people to erase information from a website. Imagine what she could do to you if you were foolish enough to oppose her.

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.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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