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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Monday, 20 May 2013

Off of

This looks fun: off of.

I have a few close friends and relatives who use ‘off of’, as in ‘take your feet off of the chair’, and others who don’t. I feel instinctively that it is incorrect, while those I know and respect use it all the time. A Google search raised a few questions – clearly I am not alone in feeling interested in this point, and more than a few people are distinctly worried about the phrase.

‘How can I explain to people that the phrase off of is grammatically incorrect?’ asks a writer to English Language & Usage (http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/619/how-can-i-explain-to-people-that-the-phrase-off-of-is-grammatically-incorrect); answers given include attempts to find analogies with other phrases (optimistically irrelevant because this seldom works with English), and an awareness that American English uses the form more than British English. This may lead us to the idea that it is an Early Modern English form, and true enough the online Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the first documentation of the form as 1567. Merriam-Webster also states that ‘The of is often criticized as superfluous, a comment that is irrelevant because off of is an idiom’ (fair enough, so is the f*****g in ‘abso-f*****g-lutely’; I’m not sure that claiming something as an idiom gets us anywhere). 

I note that the OED online does not recognise the phrase when queried, but the 1998 Modern English Usage (R W Burchfield) refers to several examples in the OED, beginning with one from Shakespeare. Burchfield does state clearly though that the phrase is 'still strongly present in the language of the less well educated but is indisputably non-standard in Britain' . Does that 'still' imply 'despite the best efforts of the British educational system' or 'a sadly obsolescent dialect form'? Burchfield goes on to note that all the twentieth century quotations in the OED are from 'sources representing non-standard speech', and Webster's College Dictionary (1991) states that it is 'widespread in speech, including that of the educated ... but is rare in edited writing'.

From earlier authorities I can find no references in the copies of Lindley Murray, William Cobbett or Henry Alford that are to hand, but an early edition of Nathaniel Bailey's Dictionary (1733 I think) gives the spectacular typo: 
Of - belonging to
Of - from 

Should I gently guide my children away from ‘off of’, as a creeping return-invasion from across the Atlantic? Or should I take comfort from the no-nonsense approach of Jane Strauss’s The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation:

Correct:Take your shoes off the bed.
Incorrect:Take your shoes off of the bed.

(And should that be Jane Strauss’ rather than Jane Strauss’s?)

I was very relieved about a year ago to find that ‘chronic’, which as a child and adolescent I, along with all my school-chums, used in the sense of ‘bad’, was seen as Essex dialect usage by the Rev Andrew Clark (Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark, 1914-19). Is ‘off of’ a UK regional dialect usage? Though it does not appear specifically in Edward Moor's Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823) there is the entry ‘Of’ with the gloss ‘We use this preposition in, I think, an unusual way – redundantly – “I missed of him” – “Taste of it” – “He is leaving of him”.’

This is promising. East Anglian migrants took several worthy things to America – clapboard housing, the Mayflower (built in Harwich), and I suspect the sound /d/ instead of /t/ in ‘beautiful'.

Discussion around the dinner table considered whether it is easier to say ‘take your feet off of the chair’ than ‘take your feet off the chair’. It is, but why? Why should it be easier to say two words than one word, especially if the two-word phrase contains the one word of the other alternative? Admittedly it is easier to say ‘I was like’ than ‘I said’ – there’s an unavoidable hiatus between ‘I’ and ‘said’ which is elided away in ‘I was like’. The dinner-table consensus was that somehow we manage to elide ‘off of’ to make it feel faster and more comfortable than just ‘of’. But I would not like to allow ease of pronunciation prime role as the ruler of language change.