Of course, as Anne pointed out and others have observed, prepositions taken literally often make no sense. Frequently we do better to take a verb followed by a preposition as a single lexical item, e.g. “Get out of the house,” where “get out the house” might seem more efficient but is considered idiomatic because get out is really a lexical item. When my students say coming off of, I’m tempted to mentally substitute following up on, which itself uses two prepositions and has very little to do with the word up.
We see children struggling with the nonsensical nature of prepositions as they acquire language. My younger son, at 3, confronted by the announcement “Time’s up! You need to go to bed,” would cry out, “No! Time’s down.” As I noted in an earlier post, on accident seemed to me the same sort of toddler “mistake” — thinking logically, that is, that if you could do something on purpose, you could also do it on (not by) accident — until I heard the phrase echoed by other millennials, who either never learned the “correct” version or chose to stick with logic rather than convention.
As Anne predicted, academic use of off of has increased; she found only one use of the phrase since 1990, whereas the Corpus of Contemporary American English now shows 12 uses in academic journals just since 2012 — and dozens more if you consider phrases with an adverb inserted, e.g. based solely off of; basing the fees off of; based primarily off of. Even more interesting to me, since I’m hearing off of in a number of contexts in the classroom, are the wide variety of phrases in which this combination of prepositions — once taught as a strict no-no — takes root. I’ll list just a few to illustrate the slipperiness of the slope:
- A group of students helped to build trails at just under 13,000 feet up off of Kit Carson Peak. (Colorado Springs Gazette)
- Everything built off of last year. (Cleveland.com)
- Her inability to run as an “agent of change,” coming off of Obama’s two terms … (Fox News)
- It was an oversight to leave the trips off of financial disclosure forms. (USA Today)
- Bouncing things off of diverse audiences has taught me things. (Higher Education)
- The gallery right off of the popular Elvis Presley Room (Cleveland.com)
- I was coming off of an amphetamine binge. (interviewee, PBS NewsHour)
- He had the wrapping off of his purple mouse before we were up. (Tails You Lose, a novel)
- Every morning involved a clearing off of the passenger seat. (Cannibals Love, a novel)
I’ve ordered these from what some might consider “least acceptable” to what almost anyone would accept as conventional phrasing. What I notice is that the hardest off of to swallow is the one where off, itself, seems to be the “wrong” preposition. The first sentence, about trail-building, uses under, up, off, and of in such quick sequence that the trails seems to be lofting into the air just below tree line. By the time we get to the fourth quote, off seems the right preposition; it’s just the addition of of that feels unnecessary. As the examples proceed, off serves more as adverb than preposition, so I expect the use of of grates on few ears. The last quote, of course, adds off to the noun, so there’s no “extra” preposition at all.
Of course, historical examples of off of abound, so while coming off of that and based off of this may be on the rise, the phrase itself is not new. More peculiar, and perhaps germane to the trend, is that, per the Oxford English Dictionary, “All the existing uses of of are derivative.” Its original sense was away or from, similar to how we use off today. We can hear this sense faintly in temporal expressions like “it was a quarter of 1.” It might be more accurate to say “It was a quarter off of 1” or “a quarter off 1,” which would (unlike so many of our prepositional expressions) be based off of on the actual relationship between quarter-hour and hour. Meanwhile, I’m not getting teed off at people whose thoughts come off of lines of discourse, who base ideas off of theories, or who build off of arguments. I’d rather hear their thoughts, their ideas, and their arguments.