Off or Off Of?

Imagine you’ve begun to revise your rough draft, that first, unkempt attempt to find the thoughts to carry your ideas out into the world. You’re reading closely what you wrote and you come upon this sentence: I told him to get his feet off of the table. Something bothers you and you can’t decide whether to correct it or let it stand. You wonder aloud, appealing to your ear: off of the table or off the table?, but all you can finally conclude is that both are probably right. You continue your revising, never quite sure and never quite confident.

There must be a better way. Now it is not correct to say that your ear is not important to revising. It’s important when it alerts us to the presence of a potential problem, and it’s essential to higher questions of style. But when it comes to fundamental points of grammar and logic, the ear tends to be unduly influenced by what others everywhere are saying and writing. The ear registers, it doesn’t calculate, and many grammatical questions can be answered confidently just with a little objective reasoning.

So the phrase off of the table bothers us (now we’re in this together), or has bothered our ear and alerted us of a rocky road ahead. What do we do? Grammatical analysis always has two parts to account for: form and syntax. Form is answered by one of the three linguistic elements: word, phrase, or clause; syntax is answered by the part of speech that form is performing (note the significant coincidence of those two words) in the clause. Our four words here constitute a phrase, and together they answer the question where? (or more exactly whence?), and so we are about to analyze an adverbial phrase.

Words that are adverbs can often also be prepositions, but it’s easy to tell the difference. Prepositions must have an object, a noun or pronoun to which they point and to which they are grammatically tied. In the phrase off of the table, off has no object, because what follows it is a prepositional phrase in its own right, the noun table being the object of the preposition of. We must conclude, then, that off is a one-word adverb, which means that the adverbial phrase we’re analyzing is actually made up of two adverbs: the single word off and the prepositional phrase of the table. This combination of an adverb and prepositional phrase is not a problem in itself (as we’ll see in a moment), but what is problematic here is the fact that the adverb and the prepositional phrase both refer logically to the same noun table. The subject is telling someone to get his feet off the table and off of the table. That’s redundant and that’s the problem. So why not just get your feet off the table.

Now if you glance back to the first sentence of this essay, you’ll find the words to carry your ideas out into the world. So is not the adverbial phrase out into the world redundant by the same reasoning we’ve just used to analyze off of the table? In fact, there’s a difference. The one-word adverb out in that first sentence refers to one’s mind, or more concretely, one’s head. The adverbial phrase that follows, however, refers to the world, the object of the preposition into. Those two different referents justify the combination of single adverb and prepositional phrase in this first sentence, but we can’t apply that same reasoning to our example sentence because both adverb and prepositional phrase are written there with an eye to one thing, the table. Or perhaps I should say with feet both off and of the table.

This method of looking closely at structure can be used all the time as we revise our work. One other common question is, for a while or for awhile? Test yourself. And for the answer, take a look at this earlier post.


Upcoming Short Course

Reading Closely to Write
Wednesdays, September 27 through October 18
6:00 to 7:00 p.m. CT

It’s an open secret that we learn to write better and better by reading more and more closely. On Wednesday, September 27, Writing Smartly will begin another short course of four one-hour sessions called Reading Closely to Write. Each week we will examine the structure and stylistic design of sentences from one or two very short stories (each averaging about 16 pages) written by celebrated authors. We will analyze the grammar and composition of certain significant sentences, and consider how other designs the author could have chosen would have produced different effects. Our emphasis will be on the language of the readings, so that we can begin to develop an eye and ear for discovering our own written voice.

New selections this fall term will again be taken from The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, edited by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Publishers, 2008), readily available at Amazon and elsewhere. Tuition for this four-session online short course is $300 paid through Zelle (, or $310 paid through PayPal.

If you have any questions, please email me directly. I hope you can join us.


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