off of, redux

I’ve written about off of on this blog before, in reaction to British complaints about it as a horrid Americanism. In my day job, I’m writing about it again from different angles, so I was thrilled to see that some researchers in Helsinki and Stockholm have undertaken much more wide-ranging and in-depth research about it than has ever been attempted: 
 
Vartiainen, Turo, and Mikko Höglund. 2020. How to make new use of existing resources: tracing the history of geographical variation of off of. American Speech 95: 408–40. 
 
Their paper, as the title hints at, is very much about getting around the problems of studying the history of and variation within the English language, given the impoverished nature of the data we have. There’s lots of English out there, but it’s not always easy to get a balanced view of it. For example, it’s not enough to know where a work was published, you need to know where its author was from. For another example, if all the evidence you have from Sussex is from farmers and all that you have from Yorkshire is from school teachers, then your regionality conclusions are going to be tarnished by other contrasts. Sometimes data sets give this info. More often you either have to go hunting for it and/or the information doesn't exist.

Vartiainen and Höglund have come to their conclusions by triangulating evidence from a number of corpora, each with their own limitations, but together rather convincing. At one chronological end, they’re using the Early English Books Online (EEBO, 1470s–1690s) corpus and, at the other end, a corpus that is updated daily in the present, News on the Web (from which they only use regional UK news sources). They’ve also included a range of sources for American English.  
 
Off of only really takes off in the 17th century. (I won’t go into why that’s so interesting because I have to save things for my book!) In the 19th century, prescriptivists start saying how horrible it is. British prescriptivists have been more damning of it (“vulgarly superfluous”, “a Cockneyism and incorrect”), but American style guides advise against it too (“much inferior to off without the preposition”). The authors suggest that prescriptive attitudes have colo(u)red linguistic description of the term, and there’s pretty clear evidence of this, I’d say, in a lot of the British writing about it, where off of is presented as something from America. Huddleston and Pullum’s (generally excellent) Cambridge Grammar of the English Language claims off of is only used in AmE. Vartiainen and Höglund show that this just isn’t true, and moreover it never was.  
 
Off of originates in England and has consistently been used there. What’s striking is how regional it’s stayed. Here are their maps of where it was most used before 1700 and in the 21st century. It is very much a southern thing.
 

 
This gives a big clue about the presence of off of in AmE: 
Importantly, much of the EEBO data predates the Great Puritan Migration to America that took place between 1620 and 1640 (…). Considering that many of the early colonies were founded by people from East Anglia (…), it is likely that they took this form with them. (p. 428) 
They go on to cite examples of off of in the Salem Witchcraft Trials: 
Since then, off of use declined in the US until the 1970s, when it started to go up—possibly as a result of a general tendency toward(s) colloquiali{s/z}ation in written English. It remains mostly a spoken form but has been on the increase in edited text like magazines and newspapers (though not in academic texts). 
…the older generations may have noticed the increased frequency of off of in public texts (a recency effect), while the younger generations may be sensitive to the form’s high frequency in American English when compared to the other varieties of English. (p. 428) 
While it’s certainly possible that the off of surge in AmE could affect current BrE, the evidence from the British data is that it has always been used there. If AmE is having an effect, perhaps it’s just providing a kind of linguistic mirror that makes the form feel less non-standard to those who are already hearing and/or using it in their regional Englishes. The authors conclude that: 
…when it comes to regional variation, we have seen that off of is frequently attested in so many parts of England that the whole idea of its being a “regional form” should be questioned. Indeed, based on the results of this study it would seem that in many cases the perceptions that British speakers have of their avoidance of off of [as a regional and/or American form] are due to highly entrenched prescriptive attitudes instead of their actual usage patterns, although we have no doubt that the form is rare enough in some regions, particularly in the West and Northwest of England, to genuinely affect acceptability judgments. (pp. 434–5) 
There remain problems in making direct comparisons of English from different times and places. For example, the AmE corpora include no casual conversation, but the BrE data do. The authors therefore have to be cautious in comparing rates of usage in the two countries, There is some indication that off of is far more widespread in AmE than in other Englishes. In the GloWBE corpus of web-based English (written, but often not as formal as published English), AmE has 26.2 off of per million words versus 21.5 in Canadian English and 8.7 in British. (That data set has not seen the same care as their main data sets, though. It may contain false hits,  probably contains duplications and can’t give a regional picture.) 
 
The paper includes research on the variants offen and offa. I won’t cover them here, but just mention them to say: oh it’s all so complex and transatlantic. 
 
In all, a fascinating read for someone who’s always thinking about function words and transatlantic linguistic comparisons. (That’s me!) I thank the authors for it and American Speech for publishing it. 
 

Related reading 
If you're interested in out of, it's covered at the original off of post
. You're welcome to leave comments there and keep that conversation going.

32 comments

  1. Please ignore this comment-catching comment!

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  2. I grew up in Bedfordshire and "off of" was commonplace. I used it in speech without thinking or noticing until my (now) wife, who is from Yorkshire, pointed it out to me. Despite saying off of, I would not write it in anything, because it looks wrong.

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  3. I think it's one of those constructions that is perfectly acceptable in spoken English (of whatever variety), but arguably unacceptable in written, certainly BrE, English. Like the word "got", for instance, which we always said, but were not allowed to write, or the distinction between "can" and "may". One can, and indeed may, say many things that are unacceptable in writing that has any degree of formality.

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  4. How interesting. I hate it but would never have thought to call it an Americanism. in all my years living thee, I have no recollection of ever hearing it.

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    1. Am. here, I use "on" where I am hearing "off of" often now. Fascinating that this is only a recent iteration of this phenomenon.

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  5. As an American, I have a vague recollection of being taught to avoid off of in writing, but it is so ubiquitous that I doubt it would faze me to see it, even in formal writing.

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  6. "Hey – you – get offa my cloud …" (Sir Michael Jagger, born Dartford, Kent)

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    1. You can't take anything in a Rolling Stones lyric as pristine BrE, though...

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    2. Lyrics heavily influenced by American blues, yes. But since Kent is in the darkest-colo(u)red part of the NOW Corpus map, maybe he says "off of" in his natural speech as well. I looked for some interviews, and found:

      "Later, when John wasn’t in the Beatles any more, he was bouncing more ideas off me than ever before. I’m not saying I was the only person he bounced off of, but he used to bounce a lot off me – song choices and stuff." —Mick Jagger, interview, 1995 (interesting how "bounced off"/"bounced off of" are used in different syntactical environments!)

      "Mick and I live off of this fire between us" —Keith Richards (who grew up as neighbors with Jagger in Kent), interview, 2018

      "when I pulled the top off of the box, wafts of Dad landed on the table" —Keith Richards, interview, 2015

      Another interesting observation on BrE vs. AmE from the Jagger interview: "I can't get no satisfaction" is a line in a Chuck Berry song, and Jagger thinks he and Richards must have unconsciously copied it, since "it’s not any way an English person would express it."

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  7. Is the drift of the epicentre from the East of England to the South East and South West a random fluctuation or does it reflect a genuine decline in one area and increase in the other?

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    1. The earlier map is not normalised for per-million-words like the later one is (because of the small amounts of data). So, if there were a lot of East Anglians being published and not many Cornish authors, then that would surely colo(u)r (ho-ho) the data represented in that map. Another possibility is that "educated" English is overrepresented in one area over another in the later map. Given the universities in the east and the smaller number of them in the southwest, that's likely to have had an effect on (a) who took part in the data collection for the spoken British National Corpus and (b) how much {sub/copy}-editing is going on at their local newspapers! So, I wouldn't put a lot into that change. The main thing is the north-south divide which is stable.

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  8. I just experienced a somewhat surreal moment in which I wondered how articles like this - discussing the use of language - impact the various corpuses. I mean there are already 87 instances of 'off of' between your two articles (and their comments). That's not-insignificant number. How much do our musings corrupt the corpuses (side note: my spellchecker REALLY wants that word to be 'corpses'; perhaps I should use corpora?).

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    1. Articles like this wouldn't show up in most of the corpora used in this study. The source for most of the current British data were casual conversations and local newspapers. The AmE data will mostly be from published popular media. The GloWBE corpus does include blogs, but wasn't a source for the proper conclusions.

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    2. On the subject of corpora (but not off of) do any of the contemporary corpora include things like scripts for TV soaps, dramas and [movies/films]? This would surely provide lots of colloquialisms and informal usage but in written form making them easier to index and classify. For example a script from Eastenders or 90210 can be pinned down to a fairly specific geographic area and can be precisely dated for future analysis.

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    3. There are corpora of subtitles. That wasn't what was used here. The problem with fiction is that the characters may be from an area, but the writers may well not be. There are an awful lot of American characters (in both countries) on television saying things that are very British because that's how the British writers wrote it

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  9. I always find it interesting when speaking about American English that Ireland and Canada seem to be left out (why I like to see the stats on Canada). To me, writing "off of" is the same as saying it, which it is a normal part of my speech. When I first thought of how I would use it, I thought of a direction. In fact, jumping off a bridge somehow has a different connotation than jumping off of a bridge. Not sure what, but I think I would use definite article (the) with just plain off, but indefinite (a/an) with off of.

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    1. There is some discussion of Ireland in article, with respect to the alternative forms that I didn't discuss here.

      But the focus on England and US are understandable as the purported sources/spreaders of the form.

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  10. Got to this post and was sure it was going to be about an entirely different off/off of issue: younger Americans' habit (my 23-year-old daughter shares it) of using off/off of instead of on.

    So, for instance, I might say "What do you base your conclusion on?", while my daughter would say "What do you base your conclusion off of?" Or I might say "I've never seen a good movie based on a good novel", while (again) my daughter would say "I've never seen a good movie based off a good novel." Aside: I tease her by saying I'll accept her use of off when, at the beginning of some biopic I'm watching, I see a title card that reads "Based off of true events."

    I suppose this is an entirely different off/off of issue from the one these Helsinki researchers dealt with, but ... is it, really?

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    1. Yes, I think the shift from on to off (of) is a different issue than variation between off and off of. And based on vs. based off (of) does seem to be generational, with a lot of concomitant peeving (in AmE, at least). But there's a whole flock of phrases shifting from on to off (of), so why single out based on? For example, according to Google ngrams, make money off (of) has been rising for the last few decades and is now almost equal to make money on in AmE. (Usual caveats about Google ngrams: their database doesn't care about genre balance.) You can also find expressions like get blitzed off of, riff off of, and capitalize off of in the New Yorker.

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    2. I think in usage here, there are slight differences in meaning in which preposition follows 'make money'. Usually it would be 'from' or 'out of' with the latter being slightly more exploitative. You can, though, say 'on' as in 'make money on the deal'.

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    3. Good point, there's some difference in meaning there (as well as some overlap). And the same may be true of feed on / feed off (of) : the off forms are more likely to be exploitive. But I can't tell any difference in riff on / riff off (of), or build on / build off (of). Those to me sound like new fashions of saying the same thing.

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    4. Also, I see this a lot referring to actors. I (30s, SAE speaker) would say, "That's the guy from/in/on (tv show/movie)," but I often see on the internet, "That's the guy off of (tv show/movie)."

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    5. I wrote SAE for standard, but realize I should have written MAE for Mainstream. Sorry.

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    6. ktschwartz: you're right that "there's a whole flock of phrases shifting from on to off (of)", but the sole reason I singled out based on is because based off became the first on/off variant (via my daughter) to come to my attention. This morning I encountered another: thrive on and thrive off. Here's an online discussion of the split from 2007. (One of the contributors appears to be Australian and cited an example of thrive off that references the city of Sidney. So I'm guessing this on/off rupture may not be limited to American English.)

      In any case, since Lynne Murphy's next book is about small words I would think this weird shift from on to off would deserve, if not a chapter, at least its own section of one.

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  11. I agree with those who think it's specifically Southern English. I first started encountering it on moving from the Midlands to Wiltshire in the 1970s. It's spoken but not written language. It goes with 'outside of' and was something young typists used to have to be weaned off - and not 'off of'. I'd also say it's 'Southern English but not London'.

    I wouldn't regard it as an Americanism, but being lax about using it in written English might be.

    I've never encountered 'based' taking 'off' rather than the usual 'on'. That would sound really odd, and counter-intuitive.

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  12. Here in the English Midlands, I first began to notice 'off of' in the speech of a colleague who was brought up in Kent (recalling the Rolling Stones song quoted by Martyn).

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  13. NZ speaker here. I always say 'off of' and without the 'of' it sounds unnatural. I always did wonder why it was considered incorrect when typing in word though... I would say most people I know say 'off of' as well.

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  14. In my mind, "off of" is almost as bad as "must of" and "should of", (even though I know these to be actual errors rather than just preferences).

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  15. Has anyone heard "offen"? I heard it in a Yosemite Sam cartoon and was wondering if its Old English.

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    1. 'Offen' is quite widespread in England. Some people regard 'often' as a pedantic 'spelling prounciation' and would say that 'offen' is the better option. One sometimes hears 'awfen' but unless it's dialectic, it sounds a bit affected these days.

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    2. I believe she was talking about 'offen' as a form of 'off of'. The paper does cover 'offen' as a variant, which is underlyingly 'off on'

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  16. I'm Australian but off and off of have slightly different meanings to me (though they are subtle and difficult to explain).

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