Dr Ruth’s Grammar Corner

28 05 2010

This is the place to come when you have a question about language (any aspect thereof) to which you’d like a considered response. I often receive emails from people agonizing over where to put a comma, or how to untangle their syntax, or whatever. Sometimes there’s a spat going on in the office and they appoint me mediator-cum-arbiter (big responsibility). In the past I’ve carried on these private conversations by email.  Now instead, I intend to have the conversation on my blog. This way I can share the love around. Here’s an authentic recent example. It took place by email, but I’ve reconstructed it here.

Hi Ruth. Am increasingly irked by Americans who use the term “off of”  as in “get off of that ….” Or “It’s time for politicians to move off of their long held views…..  Much to my horror, even Barack Obama (who writes beautifully) uses it in The Audacity of Hope. I am so horrified I felt obliged to discuss this with my local wordsmith.  Do you have any comments?  In disgust. (name withheld)

Dear Reader. Thanks for your query.  I see this as a matter of dialectal difference. In the US dialect, they simply have a double particle here. Like we do , for instance. with “put up with”  and countless others. Actually, what’s not to like? It’s a different dialect, that’s all.  Somewhere along the line you have had a neuronal synapse (or something)  between the  form and a quality of irksomeness (maybe it was coming out of the mouth of a rapper?) and that’s the source of the problem. Whatever way you look at it, however, your objections aren’t linguistically based. How can you get so disgusted by an extra little particle?

Dear Ruth.  I don’t agree that it’s a dialect. To me it’s silly grammar and I don’t equate it with double participles like “put up with”. After all you have to put up with something – you can’t just “put up” in that context.  But you can “fall off” something – you don’t have to “fall off of it”.  No it wasn’t coming out the mouth of a rapper – it’s in all the tv programs etc.  And anyway, I still don’t like it!

Dear Reader. The thing is, applying logic to things like “put up with”, as if they are inherently logical, is  problematic. I’m sure a speaker of American English could come up with an equally “logical” explanation for “fall off of”, a construction that would surely seem quite natural and normal to him/her. Certainly, language does have rules and regularities, but it’s generally an understanding we have as we look back over the language as we know it. It’s not a set of rules by which new items are constructed. Much more organic and unpredicatable. We don’t want it too predictable, do we? Latin is predictable, and look what happened there.