where … at

A birthday card found on the net (it’s been reproduced on a number of sites):

Two things here: ending a sentence with a preposition (i.e., stranding rather than fronting a preposition); and the construction whereat? The first is a total red herring; the second has been the subject of considerable usage advice.

Stranded P. Language Log and this blog have taken on this subject repeatedly (there’s an inventory of postings through mid-2009 here, and there have been more since then). There’s really not a lot to be said on the usage advice, which is crap: stranded Ps have been entirely acceptable in English from the beginning; the proscription against them was spread by John Dryden and somehow found its way into school grammars, where it festers; meanwhile, no reputable authority recommends against them, and they’re on everybody’s list of “rules that aren’t rules”. CGEL has excellent coverage of the factors favoring one or the other of the alternatives.

Where … at. A meatier topic, one that usage advisers have had a lot to say about. The short version of the usual story is that things like Where are you at? are proscribed because they’re pleonastic: Omit Needless Words, in particular the preposition at, and use Where are you? instead. Robert Hartwell Fiske, The Dictionary of Disagreeable English (2006) sweeps in where … to as well, on the same grounds:

where (at/to): delete at in “where are they at?” and to in “where have they gone to?”; avoid at when where refers to a location and avoid to when where refers to a destination (p. 364)

[Analytic digression: usage discussions seem not to mention that the P-fronting versions of the proscribed configurations are not grammatical: *At where are they? *To where have they gone? Compare the acceptable: Where have they come from? From where have they come? (the first entirely natural, the second rather stilted). These facts indicate that the syntax of the pronoun where needs further exploration.]

Other usage manuals appeal not to umbrella principles like Omit Needless Words, but go right to the heart of the matter: the social status of the variant. Here’s Maurice H. Weseen in the 3rd ed. of Words Confused and Misused (1952):

“where he is at” a vulgarism; omit at (p. 300)

[Analytic digressions. First, there are a number of different constructions in which where … at occurs: relative clauses in where (the place where I’m at) and several types of interrogative constructions. Second, there’s semantic variability; Where are you at?, for example, can be used to ask about a very specific location (like a specific address or street intersection) or a much broader one (like a state or country). Third, although usage discussions don’t mention this, no one uses the at variant in all of these situations, 100% of the time; this variation needs description.

My impression is that where … at is more likely to be used expressions referring to specific locations than to broader locations. But I don’t use the construction myself, so my impressions aren’t reliable and need to be checked out.

Finally, contrast where … at/to with how long … for, as in How long are you travelling for?, where both a shorter version and a fronted version are available: How long are you travelling? For how long are you travelling? As far as I can tell, no usage manual proscribes this one, no doubt because it’s not perceived as a vulgarism. Instead, it seems to be lumped together with other cases where P-marked adverbials and bare NP adverbials are in alternation: We left (on) Sunday. What day did you leave (on)? Some discussion of bare NP adverbials here.]

Now I turn to a posting by Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman on their Grammarphobia blog on February 16th. I’ll interrupt their discussion (in the indented portions) with comments of my own.

Q [from a reader]: I realize that the taboo against ending a sentence with a preposition is a myth, but I’ve been reading with increasing frequency such sentences as “I don’t know where he’s at.” Is this use of a superfluous “at” incorrect as well as awkward sounding?

Here we see what we might call the Increasing Rate Illusion, combining aspects of the Recency and Frequency Illusions: the belief that the rate of usage of some variant has been increasing recently. This perception might be accurate, but perceptions about frequency and change in time are subject to strong biases, and people’s impressions can’t be taken at face value; the facts need to be investigated systematically, and this isn’t always easy to do.

In this case, advice handbooks have criticized the usage for over a century; MWDEU on at cites Frank Vizetelly’s 1906 A Desk-Book of Errors in English. And note Weseen’s 1952 deprecation of the usage, above.

A: We’ve written before about these “where … at” constructions, but after four years it’s time for an update.

Many people criticize sentences like “Do you know where Dad’s at?” and “Tell me where they’re at” and “Did she say where she’s at?” But they often do so for the wrong reason.

The problem with such sentences isn’t that they place the preposition at the end. As you know, and as we’ve written many times, there’s nothing wrong with ending an English sentence with a preposition.

So what’s the issue here? The problem—if there is one—is simply that the “at” is redundant. “Where she’s at” is just a redundant way of saying “where she is.”

O&K focus here on the critique from “grammatical logic” — pleonasm, in this case — rather than the critique from the social status of the variant. But as I’ve noted many times, critiques based on grammatical logic are typically formulated to rationalize critiques based on social judgments.

Needed or not, people persist in using “at” with “where” in their speech—very seldom in writing.

When we asked ourselves why, it occurred to us that this “at” very frequently follows a contraction: “where he’s at,” “where it’s at,” “where they’re at,” and so on.

This is a testable hypothesis, though so far as I know, no one has tested it. And it can’t be the whole story, given that I’ve often been asked Where are you at?, in which contraction isn’t an issue.

Aha! A light began to dawn.

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.

As it stands, this is circular — you can’t end a sentence with a contraction because a swallowed-up verb at the end of a sentence isn’t idiomatic English — but O&K are on to something here: the conditions on Auxiliary Reduction (AR) in English (the “contraction” of auxiliary verbs). As compactly argued here, AR is blocked when the auxiliary is in a position where it’s accented, and an assortment of syntactic constructions stipulate accent on an auxiliary; among these are several that license clause-final auxiliaries, which will then be blocked from AR — in particular, VP ellipsis (*She’s usually at home when he’s vs. She’s usually at home when he is; *If he’s, then she is too vs. If he is, then she is too) and wh-movement (*I wonder where he’s vs.I wonder where he is; *Where he’s is a mystery vs. Where he is is a mystery). But the condition is not directly on clause-final (much less sentence-final) auxiliaries, as you can see from wh-movement examples like *I wonder where he’s now vs. I wonder where he is now and from examples with other constructions, for instance pseudogapping (*It’s doing more for me than it’s for you vs. It’s doing more for me than it is for you) and rejoinder emphasis with so and too (*I’m TOO going to do it vs. I am TOO going to do it); it just happens that some of these constructions are a source of clause-final auxiliaries (and that clause-final auxiliaries are very often sentence-final as well).

So anyone who uses a contraction is going to want to put something after it—like “at.”

We were pleased to see our suspicions verified in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

“In current speech,” Merriam-Webster’s says, “the at serves to provide a word at the end of the sentence that can be given stress. It tends to follow a noun or pronoun to which the verb has been elided, as in the utterance by an editor here at the dictionary factory: Have any idea where Kathy’s at?

As M-W explains, “You will note that at cannot simply be omitted: the ’s must be expanded to is to produce an idiomatic sentence if the at is to be avoided.”

The usage guide says the “where … at” combination has been a part of American speech since at least 1859, when it was recorded in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms.

M-W adds that the Dictionary of American Regional English says it’s used mostly in the US South and Middle America.

That’s from DARE‘s records, but it’s certainly common in the West and Southwest, where it seems to be primarily socially, rather than geographically, distributed. In California, at least, it could be described as “working-class vernacular”.

It’s also primarily an Americanism, although (as MWDEU notes) it’s not unknown outside the US. People have asked me why it should be mostly an Americanism, when the accent condition on AR holds in BrE as well as AmE (not to mention Australian English etc.). This is one of those questions that don’t really have an answer; variants arise where they happen to and then spread socially. New variants make some sense: they are often motivated by natural tendencies of some sort (regularization, brevity, ease of articulation, clarity, etc.). In the case at hand, the at represents a compromise between the brevity/ease that AR serves and the accent condition on AR.

So we know why this usage turns up so often in American speech. But is it a crime?

If it is, the folks at Merriam-Webster’s seem to think it’s a pretty small one. “A more harmless idiom would be hard to imagine,” they write.

Harmless because it’s not at all unclear, but it’s claimed to be wasteful. And that leads O&K to the real offense, which is social:

We agree that a redundant “at” is not a hanging offense. But you’ll probably be taken to task for using it.

Unless your conversation is very casual indeed, the unnecessary “at” may give your speech an uneducated flavor.

And of course it should be avoided when you want your writing to be at its best — that is, unless you’re quoting someone else.

Now, a side issue:

But, as we say in our previous posting, there’s a related expression that’s become an accepted idiom. This is the colloquial expression “where it’s at,” as in “Dylan 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.

A reminder here that the first cites for some usage are not necessarily particularly important. There can be scattered isolated innovations over a considerable period of time, but if the usage doesn’t spread, it’s just an interesting oddity. When the innovation “takes off” is the crucial period in its history, as O&K recognize here.

Here’s an OED citation from 1967, in 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.”

And here’s one from Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): “That, today, is where it is at, and will continue to be at for a long time to come.”

Notice in the Pirsig that the idiom doesn’t necessarily involve AR; the where it is at is an emphatic variant of the idiom (echoed in will continue to be at).

We’re pretty sure that this use of “where it’s at” will be part of the language for a long time to come.

Actually, I’d guess not. It already has the feel of old slang. Though possibly Beck’s 1996 song “Where It’s At” is helping to keep it alive.

9 Responses to “where … at”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    That 1906 Vizetelly must be the “Litt.D. Frank H. Vizetelly” fabled in song and story by Alfred Bester.

  2. Larry Says:

    My grandmother (a school teacher) always answered “right in front of the ‘at'”

    She taught long ago in California’s Central Valley, where way back then teachers had to deal with “‘C’ ‘A’ ‘T’ ‘Gato'”.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Note that there are other cases where sentence-final location at is not only acceptable, but virtually obligatory, in comparison to the fronted alternative:

    What building/corner/address are you at?

    vs. the appalling:

    At what building/corner/address are you?

  4. GenXso at 60? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] rather so in the construction Geoff Pullum and I have called Rejoinder Emphasis (some discussion here) — seen most dramatically in exchanges like: A: Did not!  B: Did […]

  5. Damn you, Dryden! « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] most recent words on the subject: Stranded P. Language Log and this blog have taken on this subject repeatedly […]

  6. Michael Ranieri Says:

    I think this is a fun topic, so please allow me to intrude:

    If I say, ¨Where are you at?¨ I may be the the old hippie. I can remove the ¨may¨ of it by saying, ¨Where are you at, man?¨
    Or, maybe I am an old (M)adman, bizspeaking, seeking closure on the deal. I say, ¨Where is the client at?¨
    Both of the above I would classify as somewhat existential.
    As for the non-existential, when it is simply a matter of location, I do prefer, ¨Where is he at?¨ over the less precise (to me), ¨Where is he?¨ By omitting the ¨at¨ I feel I am inviting (or willing to accept) a vague reply.

  7. Brief mention: where … at | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] An invented conversation, I believe, but one intended to show that the at can have a use. In this case, it picks out a specific location, as I suggested in a 2012 posting: […]

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