The Grammarphobia Blog

There is no where there

Q: I’ve always been puzzled by the phrase “to where” as in “It got to where I had no alternative.” Is this a valid usage? Or should we construct the phrase differently?

A: First, let’s get straight which usage of “to where” we’re talking about here. Some combinations of “to” and “where” are perfectly legitimate.

For example: “We drove to where my parents lived” … “We disagreed as to where the sofa should go” … “How did we hike to where we are?” Everyone agrees that these examples are standard English.

The “to where” construction that you mention is quite different. In this case, “where” doesn’t mean an actual place; it means something like “a stage at which.”

For example: “He got ill to where he could no longer eat” … “We cleaned the house to where it sparkled” … “I fixed the toaster to where it didn’t smoke.” This usage is considered nonstandard.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of “to where” as American dialect meaning “to such an extent that” or “to or at a point, position, etc., such that.” Here are the first three OED citations, all from Southern novelists:

1933, from South Moon Under, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: “Is your loggin’ to where you kin leave it for a whiles?”

1938, from The Yearling, also by Rawlings: “My grand-pappy got hisself stung oncet to where he was in the bed a fortnight.”

1960, from To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee: “Having developed my talent to where I could throw up a stick and almost catch it coming down.”

The OED adds that sometimes the “to” is omitted, as in this example from an interviewee quoted in Studs Terkel’s Working (1974): “I want to have enough money where I wouldn’t have to be a bum on the street.”

Though the non-geographic use of “to where” isn’t considered standard English, it’s extremely common, and when I google the phrase I find many examples in educated usage.

For example, I found this sentence in a linguistics discussion group, from a person studying Spanish: “Once I get to where I’m only coming across unfamiliar words once every few hundred words or so, then maybe I’ll be good enough to start listening?”

Here’s another such sentence: “This analysis is based on the idea that a Universal Grammar does exist, to where what is good for English is truly good for other languages as well.”

I agree that this is not the best English today. But who knows how it will be labeled in 50 years’ time?

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