Q: Listening to you on WNYC the other day, I was surprised to hear you use the term “illiterate” to describe the construction “off of” (as in “Keep off of the couch”). I’m a post-doctoral fellow in linguistics who uses this non-standard form. And judging by Google, it’s widely attested.
A: I’ve been bothered by that “illiterate” statement ever since it left my mouth. It was uncharacteristic of me. I’m not generally so judgmental. Even my husband let me have it when I got home from the radio studio!
My big Webster’s New International Dictionary (in a 1956 printing of the second edition) does indeed say “off of” (meaning “off”) is “now illiterate.”
However, the Oxford English Dictionary labels it “in later use only colloq. (nonstandard) and regional.” In other words, this construction was once standard, but is no longer.
For centuries, nobody considered the “of” redundant. The OED says that “off of” may have been around since the mid-15th century. Here are some relevant citations, beginning with the earliest (where it appears as “of of”):
circa 1450, from a medical text: “Take a sponfull of the licour … of of the fyir and sette it in good place tyl that it be ny colde.”
1667, from Andrew Marvell: “The Lords and we cannot yet get off of the difficultyes risen betwixt us.”
1712, from Richard Steele, writing in the Spectator: “I could not keep my Eyes off of her.”
1884, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: “I’d borrow two or three dollars off of the judge for him.”
By the time Twain put those words in Huck’s mouth they were probably considered a regionalism. (As Twain wrote in an author’s note, “In this book a number of dialects are used.”)
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the “off of” construction lost its respectability in the last quarter of the 19th century. Although it has “faded into the past” in Britain, M-W notes, it has become idiomatic in the US.
Today, the usage guide says, this “innocuous idiom” seems to be used primarily in speech in contexts ranging from “uneducated” to “general.”
“If it is part of your personal idiom and you are not writing on an especially elevated plane,” M-W adds, “you have no reason to avoid off of.”
I admit that I went too far in calling “off of” an illiterate usage. This isn’t 1956. But I still think it’s nonstandard and doesn’t belong in the best written English. Conversation and informal writing? Sure!
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says: “The compound preposition off of is generally regarded as informal and is best avoided in formal speech and writing: He stepped off (not off of) the platform.”
Another source, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.), finds the construction “much inferior” to the form without the “of.”
The author, Bryan A. Garner, puts the usage at Stage 4 in his “Language-Change Index,” which means “Ubiquitous but….” (In his system of gauging change in the language, Stage 5 means “Fully accepted.”)
One day “off of” will undoubtedly be accepted as standard American English, but not yet.
Interestingly, many other pairs of prepositions are routinely coupled in English: “next to,” “away from,” “out of,” and so on.
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has an extensive discussion of prepositions followed by prepositional phrases. “Because,” “ahead,” “instead,” “upward,” “alongside,” “inside,” “outside,” “out,” and others are often followed by prepositional phrases beginning with “of.”
However, the Cambridge Grammar notes that the combination of “off” followed by an “of” phrase occurs only in American English.