Etymology Usage

“Out” sourcing in English

Q: During a past incarnation as an avid road cyclist, I noticed many redundant uses of the word “out.” Examples: “I swapped out the big chain ring” … “The crash trashed my front rim, and I changed it out.” I now hear this type of usage everywhere. Bring me the head of the one responsible.

A: The terms “swap out” and “change out” are pretty common jargon in some industries—like auto repair—though you won’t find them in standard dictionaries. They generally mean “replace.” We wrote a posting some time ago on the subject.

Don’t think of the “out” here as redundant; think of it more as an intensifier.

There are technically redundant adverbs and prepositions in some of our most common idiomatic phrases: “meet up with,” “chase after,” “face up to,” “try out,” “divide up,” “hurry up,” “lose out on,” “fix up,” and many others.  In these examples, they  add emphasis.

But there are a couple of common redundancies—“off of” (as in “It fell off of a truck”) and “at” (“Where’s the book at?”)—that are frowned on by even the most liberal grammarians.

There may be a case to be made (though we wouldn’t make it) for a sentence like “I need to speak to her, but I don’t know where she’s at.”

As we wrote on the blog earlier this year, “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 if you use a contraction at the end of a sentence, you’ll want to put something after it—like “at.” If you think ahead, though, you can spell out the contraction and avoid the unnecessary “at.”

By the way, we say in another post that a related expression has become an accepted idiom. This is the colloquial use of “where it’s at,” “where he’s at,” and so on to mean the true state of something or someone, as in “Mick 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  a 1967 example, from 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.”

Check out our books about the English language