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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.

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Some time ago, I wrote up a piece on why the reason why isn’t ungrammatical, no matter how much some grammarians despise it. But in that piece I ignored a related construction that leads to approximately as much head-shaking and teeth-grinding: the reason is because. If you noticed and had been wondering when I would tie this loose end, well, your day has come. And if you hadn’t noticed, well, that’s for the best.

Let’s start with the obligatory examples from everyday usage:

(1a) Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said the reason is because we are too busy dealing with the unimportant things […]
(1b) No, and the reason is because we don’t control the hiring needs of our clients.

If you base your decisions about what’s grammatical on usage guides, then deciding whether these are ungrammatical is a no-brainer. All but one of the usage guides on my shelf object to it, and the one that doesn’t still suggests its usage be restricted. And among Internet grammarians, it seems everyone hates it. The best phrased put-down comes from Fowler’s Third:

“Though often defended, the type the reason … is because (instead of the reason … is that) aches with redundancy, and is still as inadmissible in Standard English as it was when H. W. Fowler objected to it in 1926.” (because, B5, pg. 100)

That end part is definitely right: it’s only as inadmissible as it was in 1926. And, as it turns out, it wasn’t inadmissible in Standard English in 1925. Here are a few examples from that time period, taken from the MWDEU entry on it:

“If the fellow who wrote it seems to know more of my goings and comings than he could without complicity of mine, the reason is because he is a lovely old boy and quite took possession of me while I was in Boston” [1915, Robert Frost]

The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion-picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely the more simple and pleasant.” [1915, P.G. Wodehouse]

“… one of the reasons why I am not particularly well read today is because I have spent so large a part of the last twenty years rereading Dickens and Jane Austen.” [1932, Alexander Woollcott]

Two of these examples come from letters rather than edited writing, but I find it difficult to accept any definition for Standard English that leaves out Frost, Woollcott, and Wodehouse. (Just to clarify, I’m not saying that the reason is because isn’t informal, only that it isn’t nonstandard.) It goes back to at least Francis Bacon in 1625. If you remain unconvinced that this is a standard expression, the MWDEU entry is chock-a-block with examples from accomplished writers, so read through it until you’re satisfied.

[Portrait of John Adams.]

John Adams, second President of the U.S. and user of both the reason why and the reason is because.

Lots of people, including well-known and respected writers, use the reason is because. But, one might argue, maybe there’s some mass delusion of grammaticality that’s going on. Maybe it really is ungrammatical, even though so many people use it, and it should still be opposed.* Let’s consider that hypothesis by analyzing the two main reasons why it’s supposed to be unacceptable.

The first argument, I have to say, is pretty cute. The reason, obviously, is a noun phrase.** A phrase starting with because is not a noun phrase. Is is a linking verb, and thus its subject and object ought to match, but they can’t match in the reason is because. QED.

More like BS. Linking verbs don’t require grammatical identity between the two constituents being linked; the reason was unknown is perfectly fine despite a noun phrase and adjective being linked. Some writers formulate their objection a bit more carefully, and note that the predicate can be either a noun phrase or an adjective phrase, but that a clause starting with because isn’t either. But this can’t be right either. Such a restriction would also rule out the reason is that, because the that-phrase would be a clause.

In an attempt to keep refining the difference so that the thing we don’t want allowed isn’t, one might object that that-phrases can be sort of like nouns sometimes. So let’s just cut to the end, with the coup de grace from Evans 1957. It is because is uncontroversially accepted (and even used by Fowler, who’s opposed to the reason is because) despite the supposed mislinking of NP and clause. As an aside, it’s worth noting that, according to the MWDEU, this mismatch-objection is a recent one, apparently developed post hoc to explain the distaste for the reason is because, rather than the original source of the distaste.

The second objection is a golden oldie: redundancy. I already quoted Fowler’s Third on this, and almost all of the complaints I read mention redundancy somewhere. Back when I discussed reason why, I pointed out that redundancy isn’t inherently bad, because language is a noisy system. A mild amount of redundancy improves the likelihood of the message being transmitted correctly. The problem is when there’s too much redundancy, slowing down the rate of communication. (A common problem in children’s conversations, for instance, or a boring person’s stories.) Using because instead of that here doesn’t slow anything down, though — aside from the couple hundred milliseconds the additional syllable might cost the speaker — so I’m pretty unsympathetic to this complaint as well.

In a similar vein, some claim that because because usually means something like “for the reason that”, you’re really saying “The reason is for the reason that” when you say the reason is because. But this sort of redundancy comes from applying an inappropriate analysis; such “redundancy” can be found in non-redundant contexts as well. Suppose we have the following sentence:

(2a) The boxer fights today.

Now let’s replace boxer with its definition in the Oxford English Dictionary:

(2b) The person who boxes or fights with his fists fights today.

Now let’s replace boxes with its definition:

(2c) The person who fights with fists or fights with his fists fights today.

Either “The boxer fights today” is extremely redundant, or simple-minded definition replacement isn’t a good argument. (Furthermore, if you see a word being consistently used in a way that doesn’t fit its standard meaning, then that meaning is inappropriate for that use of the word.)

I have some other stuff to say on this, but you’ve already been quite polite to have stuck around this long, and I’ve hit the major points, so I’ll stop here and resume at some later point.

Summary: The reason is because is a standard English phrase, one coming from the pen of good writers (Bacon, Frost, Wodehouse) for 400 years. It’s grammatically fine, and its supposed redundancy is at worst mild. You’re welcome to use the reason is that instead, as both are standard, but there’s no good reason to oppose the reason is because.

*: Of course, if most speakers of a specific language (or dialect, or register within a language/dialect) consistently use and understand a construction, then it is grammatical in that language, regardless of whether it seems like it should be. But in case you (or someone arguing with you) don’t believe that, let’s continue.

**: This is not, technically speaking, obvious — nor necessarily true. Most generative grammarians, I believe, would regard this as a determiner phrase headed by the, rather than a noun phrase headed by reason. But “noun phrase” is good enough for jazz/blogs.

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks, friends, and things are only going to speed up, because I’m currently sitting in the San Diego airport, waiting to jet off to the Big Apple for the CUNY conference on sentence processing, the psycholinguistic event of the year.

My view for the next seven-ish hours.

The bad news is that that means there probably won’t be a new post this week (unless you generously count this one). But the good news is that I’ve got a couple of updates from the week that was.

First, the grammar myths article from last weekend got picked up by Visual Thesaurus (subscription-based). The content’s the same as it was here, but the layout’s a little better and it has a nice little picture of my head so that you know that despite being a grad student, I can still pretend to look presentable.

Second, I was interviewed for a piece on redundancy in language by Colleen Ross of the CBC. There’s an audio version of it as well as a text version. They’re more or less the same — although there are small differences — and personally I prefer the audio version. But perhaps that’s just because is no comment section on the audio version, meaning that the bottom half of the page isn’t filled with amateur peevelogists saying that “issues” is a grave plague upon the language.

Lastly, I’m presenting a poster at CUNY on my recent research into uncertainty during reading. We found evidence that readers maintain uncertainty about word order in the parts of a sentence they have already read. For instance, when reading The journalist that the fact surprised …, readers also think that perhaps they read The fact that the journalist surprised (someone) …. (The former is a relative clause, the latter a complement clause.) I intend to go into more depth on this once I get back, but in the meantime, you can check out the poster here and see what the heck it is that a psycholinguist does.

A couple years ago, frequent commenter and friend of the site Vance Maverick left a comment linking to a mysterious sign located in San Francisco’s Mission District:

The sign was brought up as part of a brief discussion of the construction the reason why, and whether it ought to be replaced with the reason that. When the building the sign was on passed to new owners, they appeared to answer this question by modifying the sign:

But was it right to remove the why?* What’s the beef with the reason why, and ought it to be the reason that?

You probably already know the argument against the reason why, because it’s the same hoary argument trotted out for so many grammatical constructions that have, for whatever reason, earned the irritated attention of prescriptivists. I’m speaking, of course, of the great grammatical bogeyman of redundancy. A quick pair of examples:

Both the reason is because and the reason why have something very basic in common: they’re entries for the category of the redundancy category.”

“if you say ‘The reason why…’ it’s like saying the word ‘reason’ twice.” [Tarzan and Jane’s Guide to Grammar, 2005]

But so what? Why is redundancy bad? Well, you might say that it’s inefficient. But communication is a noisy system, whether you’re talking in a windy area, or reading an email through a smudged screen, or talking to a somewhat distracted interlocutor. In addition to these external sources of noise, the language itself adds some noise, in the form of lexical and structural ambiguities (e.g., the possible meanings of Time flies like an arrow). Adding redundant information is the rational thing to do if you expect the noise levels to be high enough that some information will be lost, and in almost every linguistic situation, that’s the case.

For many non-linguistic problems, redundancy is already regarded as a logical solution. Suppose you give me the first 15 digits of your credit card number (please do). Then I can tell you what the final digit is going to be, because the last digit is completely determined by applying an algorithm to the first 15 digits. Why not just use 15 digits, then? Well, because writing down a sequence of numbers is an easy task to screw up. By including the check digit in the 16th spot, most minor transcription errors can be caught before the transaction is started. Yeah, it’s redundant, but it’s rational redundancy.

Language has similar reasons to use rational redundancy. In an example relevant to my daily life, UCSD’s campus is positioned under the flight path of planes landing at the local Marine base. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence the engine noise becomes too loud for someone I’m talking to to hear what I’ve said. It would be absurd to refuse to repeat myself because the second time is redundant.

Now a second example: explaining a complicated concept. In academic papers, you’ll often see someone state a point, and then immediately follow it up with “That is to say”, followed by a re-statement of the argument. If you got the argument the first time, the second explanation might be unnecessary, but because some people might not have gotten it, it’s worth re-iterating.

That is to say, redundancy is not inherently bad in language.** Every agreement marker in a language is in some sense redundant. For instance, if I want to compliment some bears in Spanish for their strength, I might say:

(1) Ustedes son osos fuertes (“You-plural are bears strongs“)

Each of the four words in that sentence are marked as plural. Shouldn’t it be sufficient to only label one word as plural? This is a little bit of a special case, because the redundancy is required by the grammar. But the truth is that redundancy is common even in places where the grammar doesn’t demand it. An obvious example:

(2) The person who left their wet swimsuit on my books is going to pay.

This sentence would be fine as the person that, and would be less redundant (we already know it’s a human being that the relative clause is modifying), but no one complains here. In fact, this is the preferred version according to many prescriptivists.

Now, all of this goes to show that some redundancy is okay, but it doesn’t directly address whether this particular redundancy is okay. We can surely agree that there are unacceptable redundancies, like the old department of redundancy department. But unacceptable redundancies have something else wrong with them. It’s not that they’re merely redundant; it’s that they’re redundant and longer, or redundant and confusing, or redundant and awkward.

The reason why (and similarly, the person who) is only redundant. It’s actually shorter than the alternative the reason that, and it’s neither confusing nor awkward. At absolute worst, it’s stylistically unpleasant, and even that’s in the eye of the beholder.

One last thing, and something that should tell you that the redundancy point is off the mark, is that the reason why is both common and venerable. Both Google Books N-grams and the Corpus of Historical American English have the reason why being consistently more common than the reason that for the last 200 years. And the first example of the reason why in the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to 1533:

“He couth fynd na resson quhy he aucht nocht to helpe þe romane pepill to recovir þe land.”

[Google Books N-grams results for "the reason why" and "the reason that"]

Summary: Are people telling you that the reason why is redundant and therefore unacceptable? They’re wrong; there’s nothing inherently unacceptable about redundancy, and the reason why has been standard for centuries.


*: The story of the sign is revealed here.

**: Nor in other areas; architectural structural redundancy prevented significant damage to the Empire State Building when a plane crashed into it in the 40s.

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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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