I’m puzzling over the usage shift from based on to base off and based off of, a development that has only picked up speed in the student writing I encounter. I hear it in spoken English too, though it makes its strongest impression on me in what is meant as formal writing. My Lingua Franca colleague Anne Curzan made note of the construction a few years back, but its persistence makes it worth revisiting.
A couple of examples:
“The idea for my paper is based off my research into how homeless people care for their pets.”
“Marx’s ideas of the distribution of wealth is based off of Jesus’s sermons.”
I’d guess that most readers of Lingua Franca subscribe to based on, and might red-pencil these examples. I have, too, but I’m trying to think my way through what looks wrong but may merely be unfamiliar.
What’s the difference between the two forms? I’ve always thought of based on as structural, even architectural. The bottom supports what rises above. There’s security in the system, and the sheer mass of the built thing maintains the whole.
Based off seems to disallow the logic of the structure entirely. The base becomes the thing from which one moves away, as in takes off.
In that sense, based off is less likely to conjure a built structure than a launch pad, not architecture but rocketry. Ideas that are based off of something don’t sound to me as if they’re anchored, but just the opposite — they feel as if they’ve taken what we used to think of as a foundation and made it a precedent, a point of departure.
To take off from or to produce a take off on something can be to engage in satire, which is only a logical extension of the removal, distancing. A take off is the rocketry of critique.
This week my students were looking at a passage from the French mystic and activist Simone Weil (1909-43), whose Gravity and Grace was something of a cult book a generation or two ago.
I’m not a Weil expert by any means, and my course is on puppets, automata, and robots (which, it turns out, opens more doors and windows than together we might have imagined).
Weil even muses on the notion of baseness, with its connotations of superficiality or lower value. (Base metal, for example, speaks to a different sense of base than my students’ usage shift.)
We talked about gravity, weight, the force that holds us down. And what Weil meant by grace — the force that drives us upward to our better natures.
Most important was the idea that whatever grace was, it wasn’t something to be enjoyed selfishly. What Weil calls “the second degree of grace” is the engagement with this world while we’re still in it — grace descending, a kind of second and better gravity. It’s not enough to be uplifted — Weil wants us to be (my word here) downlifted, too, bringing that sense of grace right back down here where it can do some good.
Somewhere in here are both senses of base — the rocketry and architecture, the release from and the foundation upon.
None of this makes me more comfortable with based off instead of based on. But it’s had me thinking about what is solid and what isn’t, how the rising millions of young people worldwide might reconfigure their relation to what has come before.
What is foundational after all? What might just look that way?
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