Idiolect or more widespread?

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon May 29 21:54:04 UTC 2006

On May 29, 2006, at 12:10 PM, William Salmon wrote:

>> Subject:      Idiolect or more widespread?
>> "not
>> based off a book, not based off another movie, and not based off a
>> TV show".
>> "Based off" seemed to me to be a peculiar alteration of "based on".
> "based off a book" as well as "based off of a book" is fine in my
> Texas
> idiolect.  Raw Google data prefers "based off of a" to "based off a"
> almost 3:1.

two different issues here: "based off" in alternation with "based on/
upon", and plain "off" in alternation with "off of".

the first might actually be relatively recent; certainly, MWDEU
doesn't mention the "off" version, just the most frequent "on", the
less frequent variant "upon", and a much rarer variant "in".  that
was 1989, and you would have supposed that if "based off" had been
around in any numbers then, the staff would have noticed.  it also
looks like the advice literature hasn't been complaining about it --
which either means that it's recent enough to be (still) under the
radar, or that the advice-givers don't think there's anything odd
about it (which, frankly, i think unlikely).  in any case, it's now
very widespread.

the second is certainly not recent.  as MWDEU notes, "off of" has
been around since the 16th century, and apparently didn't start
collecting opprobium until Ayres 1881.  MWDEU judges it to be
"primarily a form used in speech", but some of their cites are from
elevated written contexts, and some kinds of examples seem entirely
natural to me (especially with concrete direct objects: "He took the
plates off the table" is slightly awkward, perhaps over-formal, for
me, while "He took the plates off of the table" sounds just right --
no doubt others will have other tastes).

there's a larger issue with alternation between plain P and P plus
"of" (for P = alongside, inside, outside, off, out [and maybe
more]).  P+"of" is a darling of the 20th-century advice literature
(Bierce 1909 seems to have been a central figure); almost all the
handbooks mention it, and they're mostly agin it, on ONW grounds
(Omit Needless Words - TM Strunk).  there are somewhat different
histories for different Ps, including different histories in the
advice literature, and there are all sorts of intriguing details: see
MWDEU on "out of" vs. "out", and on "outside of" 'except for' (where
plain "outside" strikes me as very odd), for instance.

the advice books try very hard to assemble their proscriptions under
umbrella generalizations (to make them seem more rational, more
principled, of course).  so we get, one right after the other, both
of the umbrella generalizations "Don't add extra words" and "Don't
leave out a word" (Fine & Josephson 2001:182).  aside from being in
conflict, these pieces of advice are profoundly unhelpful: if you
already knew where formal standard written english didn't use the
"extra words" and where it required an extra word, you wouldn't need
this advice.

F&J illustrate the former principle (ONW) with the "of" version of
exceptional degree modification ("too long of a skit" vs. "too long a
skit"), though P+"of" would also have done. ("where are you at" and
"where are you going to?" are other popular targets under this
umbrella).  as usual, vast expanses of intricate details are
disregarded.  the phenomena in question have to do with specific
constructions; in "He's not much of a linguist" the "of" is
*required*, for instance.

the latter principle (Include All Needed Words, or IANW) is
illustrated with complements of "couple" ("a couple of ideas" -- good
-- vs. "a couple ideas" -- bad, well, bad for *them*).  ("depart/
arrive L.A." -- vs. "depart from L.A." and "arrive at/in L.A." -- are
other popular targets.)  again, the phenomena are exquisitely
specific: restricting ourselves to bare plural nouns, "both"
disallows "of" ("both boys", *"both of boys"), while "a lot" requires
"of" ("a lot of boys", *"a lot boys").  and i'm just barely
scratching the surface.

so the two pieces of umbrella advice, taken together, amount to: know
the details of the standard formal written language.  the umbrellas
are pretty, but they won't actually keep the rain off you.  or off of

arnold (zwicky at

The American Dialect Society -

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