(at) home

One of the things I've found most useful during lockdown is to have routines that distinguish the days. The routines have become most distinct on weekends: Saturday is Cleaning Day and No-Laptop Day; Sunday is Blogging Day. After the last topical blog post, I planned to do another topical one this Sunday, regarding a UK government slogan. But then on my no-laptop Saturday, THEY CHANGED THE SLOGAN. They timed it just to make me look untopical. Grrr.

Anyhow, here's the graphic that we've been seeing on our televisions for the past seven weeks:

And too-many-to-mention people have got(ten) in touch with me to ask whether (or complain that)  stay home is a rather American phrasing for Her Majesty's government. Indeed, it is. Both AmE and BrE can say stay at home, but AmE is very comfortable with the at-less version, while BrE isn't.

These GloWBE data are from about 7-8 years ago. Here's what it's looked like in the News on the Web corpus for 2020 so far.

So, despite the prominence stay home slogan in the UK (and its news), it remains more usual to have the at in BrE, in edited news text. AmE really doesn't mind, though the phrase stay at home brings to my mind its use as a hyphenated modifier, as in stay-at-home parent. Such adjectival use, if properly hyphenated, would not appear in the above figures.

Presumably, the slogan is Stay home because it parallels the cadence of Save lives. (Fritinancy has pointed out that stay home/save lives is a World Health Organization slogan, so that's probably how it got to the UK. The govenment could have translated it, but didn't.) The parallelism becomes clearer when the NHS line is left out or where the parallel Stay–Save lines are graphically linked, as in:

But even Her Majesty's Government is not consistent in using the at-less version:

Enough of the sloganeering, what about the grammar?

Home can be a noun, as it is in sentences like:
  • You have a beautiful home
  • My home is wherever I lay my laptop.
You can tell it's a noun (for sure) in those places because it's part of a noun phrase, introduced by determiners (a, my), with optional adjectives (beautiful) or possibly other modifiers (e.g. ...that I'd like to visit).

It can also be an adverb. Now, I have to pause here and say that, as far as I'm concerned, adverb is a garbage grammatical category. It is used to cover all sorts of things that behave in very different grammatical ways—from very (which modifies adjectives), to lazily (which might modify a verb phrase), to undoubtedly (which generally modifies a whole sentence), to well (which does all sorts of weird things and is an adjective too), to not (which modifies sentences or other phrases in much more grammatically restricted ways). Home is not an adverb in any of those ways. It's an adverb in the way that here or away are adverbs—indicating 'where' and often 'to where'.

Both BrE and AmE use home as an adverb. You can see it with various verbs of motion—and how it differs from a more nouny-noun like house, which has to have the trappings of a noun phrase and might need a preposition to connect it to the verb phrase. Compare these, where * is the linguistics signal for 'ungrammatical string of words'.
  • We're going home versus We're going to our house.   (*We're going house)
  • I have to get home by 10  versus I have to get back to my house by 10 (*I have to get house)
But in lots of cases, it's hard to tell if home is a noun or an adverb. In the first few examples, with things like your beautiful home, noun use sometimes rubs people the wrong way. "Why say home when you mean house?" they say. It sounds like advertising-speak, especially as used by (AmE real) estate agents. But I used those examples because home is very definitely a noun there. In other cases like the following, it could be a noun, but it doesn't have to be interpreted as that:
  • Home is where the heart is.  (subject of the sentence)
  • There's no place like home.   (object of preposition like)
Noun phrases can be subjects of sentences and objects of prepositions, and so home can be interpreted as a one-word noun phrase, which is a perfectly fine kind of noun phrase to be if we're treating the noun as non-countable. And it works to treat home as a non-countable noun if we're thinking of it as some kind of abstract state, rather than as just a house. Notice how other abstract nouns like imagination or love are very naturally used all on their own: Imagination opens doors; Love will keep us together.

But it's also the case that the places where we tend to use home as a bare noun are also places where we could use a prepositional phrase, and prepositional phrases can do adverb jobs:
  • At my house is where I like to be.
  • There's no place like under the duvet
Which is all to say that saying which part of speech a word is can be difficult—even in context. (Though I'll put my cards on the table and say I would count home as an abstract noun in the last two examples.) The parts of speech that we traditionally use for English may not be (more BrE) up to the job.
(SIDEBAR: This is not an excuse for not teaching grammar in school. This is evidence that grammar needs to be taught more like physics, where we can look at the evidence, admit we don't have all the answers, and evaluate different possible solutions.)

A n y h o w . . . 
We've got this funny word that can be a noun or an adverb—and it's been like this for as long as English has existed. The adverb originally and still incorporates a 'toward(s)' element: going home is 'going to one's home'. So the adverbial 'at home/in one's home' meaning that we get in stay home is a deviation from the original meaning. But it's a deviation that's been around for centuries. Consider these examples from the OED:
In the 1587 example, the ships are docked at their home. In 1615, true zeal loves to keep (at) home. Most of the examples with the verb to be would pass unnoticed in BrE (and certainly in AmE) these days. But the be home examples in BrE in the OED seem to have a bit of a hint of motion to them, in that they are about the future or the past: will be home and have been home. Movement to/from home is implied because person isn't at home at the time that the sentence was written.

All of the OED adverb examples with stay are American, though, including the one from Emily Dickinson (above) and Judy Blume's, which has the familiar stay home shape:
With stay, home loses its 'toward(s)' sense. It's acting like other spatial adverbs like here and away, and perhaps it's the opposite relation with away that has encouraged home to grammatically imitate away in AmE: stay away/stay home. But the adverb home hasn't fully made that trip in BrE, and so if you want to use home with stay, you need the preposition at to hook the noun home onto the sentence. Since home is also a noun in AmE, AmE can use the at home just as easily. A somewhat similar case is what happens with on and days of the week (click the link to read about it), but I would not want to call these cases "the same thing". AmE has lost some prepositions where BrE hasn't, but BrE is losing some where AmE doesn't. In some UK dialects, for example, people can go pub, as University of Kent linguist Laura Bailey has been exploring.

Back to the slogans. The new slogan is "Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives".

It's presented with green rather than red, to give us a signal that we can "go" a bit more. Maybe. Or something. The comedian Matt Lucas summari{s/z}es Boris Johnson's speech on the matter:

The new slogan is being mocked relentlessly on UK social media within a day of its announcement. Here's what comes up top in my google image search for "stay alert":

The comedian Olaf Falafel has made a Government COVID Slogan Generator (play the video and click on it to stop it on a new slogan):


As many have pointed out, it's unclear what we're supposed to stay alert for when we can't see the virus or tell who's carrying it. The UK government seems to love to direct its public with three-part  slogans, as we've seen before with "See it, say it, sorted". One reason that the "stay home" message was heeded was its appeal to protect the National Health Service—and the NHS's absence from the new slogan comes at the same time as many are worrying about backdoor machinations to sell off the NHS to private companies. There is the possibility, though that the "stay home, protect the NHS" message needed to be replaced because it had backfired and endangered people by making them reluctant to use NHS services for non-COVID-related problems.

Much more heartening than government messages is the outpouring of NHS-love in the front windows of the UK, where many are putting up pro-NHS messages and messages for other (BrE) key/(AmE) essential workers, with rainbows to cheer us all up. Here's a Google Image search result for "rainbow windows". On the windows, the more common slogan is stay safe.


Here's how we did our front window. No slogans, just rainbow:
Stay safe.

 (And if you want to read me railing against the phrase stay safe in American discourse, click here.)


  1. Long ago--over 65 years, actually--my English teacher, in southern California, would have called "home" in that context an "adverbial noun." A similar example: We drove downtown.
    More recently, here we're not told to "stay at home." Instead, we must "shelter in place."

  2. There was for a time a graphic representation of at home, an @ extended into a cartoon roof over it. Presumably that's now forgotten.

    I wonder they didn't just borrow from Father Ted: "Careful Now" and "Down With This Sort Of Thing".

    1. The Father Ted scene is the first thing that came to my mind too.

  3. "Home" can also be a verb, most commonly used in the phrase 'to home in' on something, e.g. a target. Grammarians appear to be fighting a rear-guard action to delay the ultimate conflation with the word 'hone', made famous as a gaffe by U.S. president George H.W. Bush, but now creeping inexorably into common usage. It still makes me grind my teeth whenever I hear someone say they're going to 'hone in on something', though.

  4. For me (Am.E), at home implies physical boundaries (includes house, yard, driveway) whereas home is the abstract (family, pets, belongings). Is there a difference in how "at home" and "home" is being used now compared to last year at this time? I know our Governor (Cuomo of NY) will emphasis Stay AT Home in his talks.

  5. "Now, I have to pause here and say that, as far as I'm concerned, adverb is a garbage grammatical category."

    Lynne, I've been reading your blog for some years now and I think this may be the single most entertaining thing I've ever read on it.

    On second thought, it may be the COVID-19/Covid-19 parody posters that are the single most entertaining thing I've read on it.

    I guess this post is what you'd call a twofer.

    1. I hope I haven't peaked, Dick!

    2. No pressure! (Seriously: by now you've surely noticed that the vineyard you're laboring in produces a bumper crop of topics like this one week after week, month after month and year after year. It's really quite remarkable. There's no other blog on the web that I've returned to as often and for as long as I have yours. You should be right chuffed.)


  6. "The category 'adverb' is essentially the junk drawer of the English language." — Kory Stamper

    "It has often been suggested that the traditional adverb category has something of the character of a classificatory wastebasket, a dumping ground for words that don't belong in any of the other more clearly defined categories." — Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar

    Lynne's in good company.

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  8. It's amusing to note that the (American) Modern Library edition of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" has "stay home" in one place where Austen's original wording was "stay at home".

    It's not clear whether this was a deliberate editorial change for American readers, or simply a mistake.

  9. I often find it useful to compare to other Germanic languages as the syntax is pretty similar in all of them. In the Scandinavian languages this word is a lot less ambiguous as there is both a noun (hjem/heim/hem) and a corresponding adverb (hjemme/heime/hemma) with slightly different forms. The adverb would be the only possible choice in the sentences below:

    Home is where the heart is. (subject of the sentence)
    There's no place like home. (object of preposition like)

    1. Did you mean the noun would be the only possible choice in those sentences?

  10. And the same goes for "stay (at) home" - both Norwegian, Swedish and Danish would use the adverb (bli hjemme/heime, bliv hjemme, stanna hemma).

  11. To my Am.E ears,"house" = "single family detached house."
    With that context, I don't hear "home" as real estate euphemism, but rather as a broader term that includes the more specific "house."

    (As an apartment {flat}-dweller, I'd say, "I'm going home," or, "I'm going back to the apartment," but never, "I'm going back to my house.")


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)