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Author Topic: When a tremendously popular song legitimizes a grammatical atrocity  (Read 9506 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: November 13, 2010, 03:37:16 PM »

How does obviously bad English grammar become acceptable usage? I think this could happen when a song takes lyrical license with bad grammar, then goes on to make itself a worldwide hit for so many years. This was surely the case with the grammatically lamentable phrase “off of” in such remarks as “Could you please wipe that smirk off of your face?” This much I told Ed Maranan, a literary writer-friend of mine, sometime in mid-2009 when he bewailed the pandemic of this peculiar syntax not only in face-to-face conversations but also in the mass media as well as on the web. And the culprit, I theorized in a note to him, was the British rock-band Rolling Stones, whose 1965 blockbuster-hit song “Get Off Of My Cloud” became one of the two bestselling back-to-back single releases in music history.

 

As some of you might still recall, the song’s lyrics aggressively repeated these bad-grammar lines four times: “I said, Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Don’t hang around ’cause two’s a crowd / On my cloud baby...” There’s no doubt in my mind that since then, it’s been primarily responsible for legitimizing the “off of” usage in the English lingua franca.

But should we fault the Rolling Stones for this grammatical atrocity? I don’t think so. As I quoted Patricia O’Conner, a best-selling author of books on contemporary English usage, in an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in May 2009, “The ‘rules’ are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. When enough of us decide that ‘cool’ can mean ‘hot,’ change happens.”

In the case of “off of,” that change certainly has happened and there isn’t much we can do about it now. (November 13, 2010)

The “off of” bad-grammar pandemic

A friend of mine, the award-winning writer Ed Maranan, e-mailed me this lament sometime back: “I can’t stand it any more, Joe! Over the last two years, I have seen its use proliferate, and I don’t know when it started becoming fashionable or grammatically acceptable, or both. I am referring to ‘off of,’ as in this example: ‘The priest said, “No, but it will wipe that smile off of your face.”

“Aren’t we allowed to just say ‘wipe that smile off your face’? I’m angry and tongue-twisted!”

The following day, Ed made this follow-up: “Hi, Joe! Here’s one more, among countless others:

“‘All of those grocery store mailers and catalogs are pretty pointless to receive if you are like most people and really hate junk mail. You can help get rid of this by removing yourself off of random mailing lists.’

“Seems like mostly North American usage, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already in use across the Atlantic.”

Seven minutes later Ed was back again: “I just had to Google it up, Joe. It’s worse than I thought. It’s pandemic. As far as I’m concerned, the only time the two can be used together is ‘the send-off of the troops,’ etc. I wonder how long it would be before the sign says ‘Keep off of the grass’...”

I must say that I had felt queasy myself over the growing use of “off of,” but the feeling turned to alarm when I did my own Google check. As of May 13, 2009, the web already had over 107,000,000 entries for “off of.” Ed is right: its usage has become pandemic.

Here are a few more usages of “off of” that stuck like fishbone in my throat: “Get this bug off of me!” “The Internet is taking the shine off of Apple.” “When moms criticize, dads back off of baby care.” “I can’t take my eyes off of you.”

Like most people of my generation, I have long known that “off of” in constructions like “I can’t take my eyes off of you” is bad English—to be tolerated only as an exercise in lyrical license, as in that line from the 1967 hit single “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” The scrupulously correct usage is, of course, “I can’t take my eyes away from you,” and whenever this correction was challenged, we simply invoked good English grammar and that was that.
  
So why today’s “off of” pandemic?

My theory is that this bad-grammar contagion started in England itself way back in 1965. In September of that year, the British rock-band Rolling Stones released their song “Get Off Of My Cloud,” whose lyrics repeat these aggressive bad-grammar lines four times: “I said, Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Don’t hang around ’cause two’s a crowd / On my cloud baby…”

A blockbuster in both the United Kingdom and the United States, “Get Off Of My Cloud” went on to become one of the two bestselling back-to-back single releases in music history. I daresay that over the next 42 years, it’s been primarily responsible for legitimizing the “off of” usage in both mind and tongue all over the world.

The lesson here, I think, is to never underestimate the power of song in modern times to propagate bad grammar and make it de facto acceptable usage. As Patricia O’Conner, former editor of The New York Times Book Review and author of the bestselling grammar book Woe is I, has observed about who decides what good grammar is, “The answer is we all do. Everybody has a vote. The ‘rules’ are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. When enough of us decide that ‘cool’ can mean ‘hot,’ change happens.” (May 16, 2009)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 16, 2009 issues © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: February 20, 2017, 08:32:42 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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