Q: When I was in the Carter administration, one of the most grating forms of bureaucratese was “sign off on.” The other day, I noticed with alarm that a Wall Street Journal article stated, “The board would have to sign off on any deal.” Am I too squeamish? Is “sign off on” now standard English?
A: Yes, you’re being too squeamish. There’s nothing wrong with “sign off on,” though some people might consider the usage colloquial—that is, more appropriate to speech or informal writing.
If what bugs you is the apparent contradiction of the words “off” and “on” in that Journal article, there is no contradiction.
The word “off” here is an adverb used in the sense of “to a finish” (as in “drink off,” “sign off,” “pay off,” and so on). The word “on” here is a preposition meaning “with reference to,” “concerning” or “about” (as in “He refused to comment on the bailout”).
There are many examples of such apparently contradictory terms used in a legitimate way. A speaker may go “off on” a tangent, a ballplayer go “out in” a blaze of glory, and a soggy person come “in out” of the rain.
The phrase “sign off on” originated in the US in the first half of the 20th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED defines is as meaning “to assent or give one’s approval to, by or as if by signing an agreement.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase is from a 1930 issue of the New York Times: “Princeton has signed off on graduate coaching for baseball.”
In this 1973 citation from the New Yorker, the writer felt it necessary to explain the term:
“The military bureaucracy, most notably the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would have to ‘sign off’ on (Washington jargon for ‘approve’) the American proposal.”
That citation suggests that “sign off on” was common in government circles (though not with the general public) even before Jimmy Carter became president in 1977.
You ask whether “sign off on” is considered standard English. It’s certainly a common idiomatic usage, but lexicographers differ on whether it’s standard.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels it “informal,” but the OED and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) find it unremarkable and attach no usage label to it.
Under an entry for “sign off,” Merriam-Webster’s uses this example: “sign off on a memo.” We conclude that the OED and M-W consider it standard English.
And with that, we’ll sign off on your question.
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