Idiolect or more widespread?

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Tue May 30 18:51:59 UTC 2006

On May 29, 2006, at 2:54 PM, i wrote:

> ... two different issues here: "based off" in alternation with
> "based on/
> upon", and plain "off" in alternation with "off of".
> ... the second is certainly not recent.  ... 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 ...
> ... the umbrellas are pretty, but they won't actually keep the rain
> off you.  or off of
> you.

(as it happens, i prefer the "off of" version in that last sentence.)

correspondents note that some people use the "of" variant very
heavily, maybe all the time.  that would put it in the same box (for
these speakers) as the Ps that require "of" in standard english:
because of the storm, *because the storm, instead of that hat,
*instead that hat, in front/back of the house, *in front/back the
house, *outside John 'other than John', outside of John [in this
sense].  (entertainingly, there are some similar Ps that *do not
permit* "of": beside the house 'next to the house', *beside of the
house, besides John 'other than John', *besides of John.  and of
course, some that alternate: alongside, inside, [locational] outside
[note contrast with logical "outside"].)

there might be invariant-"off of" speakers, but i'm inclined to doubt
it.  to start with, there are a *great* many uses of the P "off", and
it seems unlikely that they would all have picked up the extension
with "of", all the time, even in the 500 years or so available for
the spread of this variant.  "off of" might appear to be omnipresent
for some speakers, though, just because it occurs for uses of "off"
that are already especially notable to certain listeners -- for
instance, the d.j.'s use of "off of" in "And now I'll play
'Operator', off of the Grateful Dead's album 'American Beauty'"; this
one is noticeable because the use of "off" here (even without the
"of") is itself noticeable to many listeners, who would themselves
use "from" or "on" in this situation.

in addition, i'd expect that there would be some style-shifting for
individual speakers, at least for certain uses of "off".

my guess is that almost everybody has both variants, for some uses of
"off" and in some (non-linguistic) contexts, but that there is huge
variability in frequency of use as well as in the details of
(linguistic and non-linguistic) context.  this would make a fine
research project in variation -- but a hard one, since doing it
properly requires close analysis of the practice of individuals.

i know, some of you out there are saying that you absolutely *never*
write, or even say, "off of".  again, it's possible that your belief
is accurate, but we know that such judgments are incredibly
undependable.  it's likely that at least a few uses of "off" are so
natural with "of" for you that you just don't notice them in your own
productions.  remember that this "of" has had 500 years to spread,
and it can be heard and seen all over the place, from Pepys and
Steele to the New York Times.  it's hard to believe that someone
could manage to avoid picking up a few types of "off of".

arnold (zwicky at

The American Dialect Society -

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