Monday, May 10, 2010

where I'm at

The title of this post makes reference to a pet peeve that several (English) readers have wanted me to know about. I'm not going to defend it; I'm just going to use it as I think it means more than 'where I am'.  (Discuss.)

I've not blogged yet this month, and I'm just here to say that I probably won't.  I am so absolutely swamped by things that aren't as fun as blogging but which Must Be Done, and I'm dashing off here and there and everywhere for conferences and meetings.  Expect to see me again, a bit, in June--after the marking lets up a bit and the conferences are out of the way.

In the meantime, I am still tweeting.  I can manage 140 characters on BrE/AmE differences on most days as a distraction from the horror of my early-summer deadlines.

30 comments:

SL said...

I see nothing wrong with "where I'm at" so it's a mystery to me why it would be anybody's pet peeve.

John Cowan said...

Where are you at? is one of the classical Americanisms that Brits (and American prescriptivists, too) have complained about for two centuries: it was redundant (where already meaning 'at what location') and it sounded rustic, typical of "Cousin Jonathan", the 19th-century British term for Americans.

Now it's become differentiated in AmE, as Lynne says: simple where is associated with physical location, whereas where...at refers to a more abstract position: the situation in which you find yourself, where you stand on an issue, etc.

amodeus said...

I am one of those people that use prepositions like "at" at the end of sentences. I actually feel that this is a more emphatic and (in my mind) a more specific question. This would also go for the other end prepositions too. I speak a Southern American English.

Anonymous said...

@amodeus: southern american english? Like Patagonia or something?

dveej said...

I, an American who has worked with Brits (and with Brit-wannabes, more-linguistically-British-than-thou, such as Kiwis), have noticed a much, MUCH lower peeve threshold among Brits and their wannabe emulators with regard to American usages they perceive as solecisms.
My first clue was when I blithely used a subjunctive in a subordinate clause and was (incorrectly) corrected, because Brit usage has mostly purged such subjunctives from modern usage.
So what does y'all think? More Brit peevers than Yank peevers?

steph said...

Strangely, the boyfriend and I both consider the "where are you at" question to come from our shared Chicago background as opposed to our shared California background. It's on the list of things we pick out when we hear it (another being "I aksed you..." for example).

Dilsnik said...

"Where I'm at" always irks me because of the "Never end a sentence with a preposition" thing that we older folk were taught as youngsters.

It also reminds me of "Where you at?", the horrible slang phrase that is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. I'm a Bronx born and raised 80's Hip-Hop B-Boy. I can only imagine how wrong it sounds to other folk.

strawman said...

In South-West England (Devon, Cornwall) the same construction is commonly used, but with to rather than at as the sentence-ending preposition, as in "Where is it to?".

Which prompts me to attempt a cross-cultural joke:

(AmE)Redneck/(BrE)yokel (AmE)fresher/(BrE)first year student on first day at (AmE)Ivy League/(BrE)Oxbridge college : "Where's the library (AmE)at/(BrE)to?"

Ivy League/Oxbridge student : "You will find, sir, that educated people prefer not to end a sentence with a preposition".

Redneck/yokel : "Sorry. Where's the library (AmE)at/(BrE)to, (AmE)asshole/(BrE)arsehole".

Johnny E said...

Shouldn't be forgotten that it's the only acceptable formation for enquiring as to the current location of "all da white women".

I think the "where you are = physical location, where you're at = abstract state" seems about right. But rather than save this from pet-peevedom it just makes it a subset of the generally irritating "mental state as location" metaphor that's all over the angstier American shows (Yank angst: Yangst!). Whenever I hear that it puts me in such a bad place, you know?

Robbie said...

I agree, "where I am" is a description of physical location. "Where I'm at" is metaphorical. It might be a description of my political leanings, spiritual beliefs, or just what side I'm taking in an argument.

The phrase goes back to the '60s (maybe the '50s?) and "where it's at" -- i.e. the world of what's cool.

"Where I am"/"where I'm at" isn't really in the same category as other preposition-ending phrases like "where I'm going to" (which sets my teeth on edge).

English allows sentences to end with a preposition, and sometimes it's the best stylistic choice, but most of the time it's unnecessary.

Robbie said...

I've just been reading a collection of Beachcomber (JB Morton) and must share this snippet:

Dear Sir,

Yes, you should indeed be careful in your use of the preposition at the ends of sentences. People are often more sensitive than you suppose.

A friend of mine, a grammatical purist, who was seriously ill, asked his nurse to read some of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy to him.

She ploughed on patiently for half an hour and then, poor woman, laid the volume down with a sigh and remarked, "Whatever did you choose a book like that to be read to out of for?"

My friend collapsed, and has never completely recovered his nervous balance.

Yours faithfully,
"Admirer".
London SW1.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I, BrE, do distinguish between "Where I'm at" and "Where I am"; the latter being purely geographical, the other, more about what I'm thinking/feeling/believing right now.

Roger Owen Green said...

AmE: I've never been bothered by "where I'm at" in the metaphoric sense. Reminds me of "that's where it's at", "at" meaning "groovy" or "happening" or as this article states: "the speaker understood the essential truth of a situation."

More of a problem for me when referring to direction, though.

mollymooly said...

I suspect most people, US or UK, make the distinction John Cowan mentions to some extent.

An American friend's "Where's the remote at?" was completely unidiomatic for me. Perhaps there was some shade that could not have been conveyed by "Where's the remote?"; maybe something like "Where has it gone to this time?" Or perhaps it was a purely spatial use.

On the phone to someone on a journey, 'where are you 'at? as in "How far have you come?", is okay for me. But if they're already two hours late, Where 'are you? is much more appropriate.

holly said...

i've wondered if the 'Where you at?' isn't really "where're you at?", blending the two R-sounds into one. Then, since '"Where you?" does not sound at all right, the "at" is added. I'm most likely wrong on this, as it is something i've only thought about,not researched.

ros said...

@Anonymous, I'm pretty sure they speak Welsh in Patagonia, not any kind of English.

Robert B said...

What I am: A Brit
Where I am: North London
Where I'm at: Not peeved

Julie said...

I agree only partially with the physical/metaphorical distinction. I use both of them both ways, when the occasion calls for it.

Although I don't have a Southern accent, I agree with amodeus in this regard. The final preposition makes the question more specific, more immediate.

"Where's the remote at?" emphasizes the current moment (when it seems to be misplaced) and the exact place.

I also think "Where're you at") is simply easier to hear and understand than "Where are you?"

On the other hand, I might ask "Where are you on [political issue]?" Okay, maybe not in today's political climate. Too dangerous.

Strawman: You can't translate "yokel" as "redneck." They don't mean the same thing. That said, your joke works either way.

biochemist said...

I see where you're coming from (a classic Brit peeve, even when 'like, totally' are absent).

If 'where it's at' can be justified as a metaphorical position, then the BrE speaker has a parallel in 'Where have you got to?' - which chapter of a book have you reached, how far in a movie or in knitting a sweater.
With a more emphatic intonation it might imply that you are late for tea and your mum is incredulous that you have gone to a friend's house instead!

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

The final "at" has tended to irritate me in most contexts, but yet I have to admit to using both it and "I ain't no...", but specifically in order to emphasis/ze that I'm not being entirely serious. Of course, you'd probably have to know me and my linguistic habits to get that, but hey, nobody's perfect.

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

I know, the s/z thing isn't strictly speaking a transatlantic distinction. But it seems to me that so many people believe it is that it has effectively become so, or at least is well on its way to becoming so.

Robin said...

I make mollymooly's distinction, too. Adding "at" to the end makes the emphasis on locality. If I call someone and ask "Where are you?" they may think I'm really asking "Why are you late getting here?" If I call someone and ask "Where are you at?" they will know I want to know their physical locality. If I mean the phrase metaphorically, I would always add "on this" to the end. If I want to know someone's opinion on a subject, I would ask "Where are you at on this?" rather than just plain "Where are you at?"

empty said...

Ain't it hard when you discover that/
He really wasn't where it's at

Andrew said...

The lack of linking verb in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and certain other varieties suggests that "at" may be performing the function of a stative/locative verb in these contexts:
"Where you at?" = "Where are you located"
"Where he at?"
"Where she at?"
"Where they at?"

If this is the case, the sentence is not ended with a preposition, but rather a verb.

Julie said...

Andrew: For AAVE speakers, that has some logic, except that they routinely drop forms of "be" where that is the main verb.

Most of us who say "Where you at?" don't drop verbs in the AAVE fashion. I would write it "where're," even if the "'re" is indistinguishable. Many people of my acquaintance pronounce "mirror" and "mere" the same way, too. I don't, but it's the same assimilation.

Dr. Tom Roche said...

It seems like a lingustic register issue-- I have no problem personally with saying 'where (are)you at?', but I would never write it.

alai said...

"Where you at?" means "How are you?" back home in New Orleans, so how you is, woman ?!

(Asking one's location: Where you is/where are you?)

biochemist said...

What is the answer to 'where are you at'?
Recently in the UK, I've noticed several instances of 'I'm in a good place' or 'she was in a bad place' - metaphorically describing satisfaction with life, happiness (or the reverse of course).

Ed said...

I wonder if the redundant at is related to the redundant (in standard varieties of English) to found in South West England, especially around Bristol?

In that dialect, one would say Where are you to? rather than Where are you?, or where's the salt to? etc.

Even though I'd encountered it a lot, it caused great confusion when travelling by bus in Bristol. Not being familiar with the area, I asked the driver if he could tell me when we had reached a particular place. Unfortunately I had got on the wrong bus and he asked me Where did you get on the bus to? which of course in standard English would be asking where my destination was, but he he was actually asking the location of the place I boarded the bus, not where I was going!

Grace said...

@biochemist: AmE has 'Where have you got to?' too, though I think we'd say it slightly differently. EIther 'Where have you gotten up to?' or 'How far have you gotten?'