Etymology Usage

“At” tricks

Q: I realize that the taboo against ending a sentence with a preposition is a myth, but I’ve been reading with increasing frequency such sentences as “I don’t know where he’s at.” Is this use of a superfluous “at” incorrect as well as awkward sounding?

A: We’ve written before about these “where … at” constructions, but after four years it’s time for an update.

Many people criticize sentences like “Do you know where Dad’s at?” and “Tell me where they’re at” and “Did she say where she’s at?” But they often do so for the wrong reason.

The problem with such sentences isn’t that they place the preposition at the end. As you know, and as we’ve written many times, there’s nothing wrong with ending an English sentence with a preposition.

So what’s the issue here? The problem—if there is one—is simply that the “at” is redundant. “Where she’s at” is just a redundant way of saying “where she is.”

But needed or not, people persist in using “at” with “where” in their speech (very seldom in writing). And they sound perfectly natural in doing do.

When we asked ourselves why, it occurred to us that this “at” very frequently follows a contraction: “where he’s at,” “where it’s at,” “where they’re at,” and so on.

Aha! A light began to dawn.

People naturally use contractions when they talk, but not at the end of a sentence.

This is because when you end a sentence with a contraction, like “she’s,” the verb (“is”) gets swallowed up. And a swallowed-up verb at the end of a sentence—as in “Did she say where she’s?”—is not idiomatic English.

So anyone who uses a contraction is going to want to put something after it—like “at.”

Besides, in these “where … at” constructions, it’s the location—the “at”—that’s stressed in speech, not the verb. One would stress the verb if the “at” weren’t there, as in “Now where the hell is it?” or “Where could it be?”

We were pleased to see our suspicions verified in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

“In current speech,” Merriam-Webster’s says, “the at serves to provide a word at the end of the sentence that can be given stress. It tends to follow a noun or pronoun to which the verb has been elided, as in the utterance by an editor here at the dictionary factory: Have any idea where Kathy’s at?

As M-W explains, “You will note that at cannot simply be omitted: the ’s must be expanded to is to produce an idiomatic sentence if the at is to be avoided.”

The usage guide says the “where … at” combination has been a part of American speech since at least 1859, when it was recorded in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms.

M-W adds that the Dictionary of American Regional English says it’s used mostly in the US South and Middle America.

So we know why this usage turns up so often in American speech. But is it a crime?

If it is, the folks at Merriam-Webster’s seem to think it’s a pretty small one. “A more harmless idiom would be hard to imagine,” they write.

We agree that a redundant “at” is not a hanging offense. But if you’re conversing with a stickler, you’ll probably be taken to task for using it.

Unless your conversation is very casual indeed, the unnecessary “at” may give your speech an uneducated flavor.

And of course it should be avoided when you’re writing and you want your English to be at its best (unless you’re quoting someone else).

But, as we say in our previous posting, there’s a related expression that’s become an accepted idiom. This is the colloquial expression “where it’s at,” as in “Dylan really knows where it’s at!”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the idiomatic “where it’s at” this way: “the true or essential nature of a situation (or person); the true state of affairs; a place of central activity.”

The OED has published references for this expression going back to a 1903 article in the New York Sun, but it really took off in the 1960s.

Here’s an OED citation from 1967, in the now-defunct BBC magazine The Listener: “As Dylan says, ‘I’ll let you be in my dream, if I can be in yours.’ I think I know where he’s at.”

And here’s one from Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): “That, today, is where it is at, and will continue to be at for a long time to come.”

We’re pretty sure that this use of “where it’s at” will be part of the language for a long time to come.

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