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 âoff ofâ in such remarks as âCould you please wipe that smirk off of your face?â 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 âGet Off Of My Cloudâ became one of the two bestselling back-to-back single releases in music history.
As some of you might still recall, the songâs lyrics aggressively repeated these bad-grammar lines four times: âI said, Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Donât hang around âcause twoâs a crowd / On my cloud baby...â
Thereâs no doubt in my mind that since then, itâs been primarily responsible for legitimizing the âoff ofâ usage in the English lingua franca.
But should we fault the Rolling Stones for this grammatical atrocity? I donât think so. As I quoted Patricia OâConner, 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, âThe ârulesâ are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. When enough of us decide that âcoolâ can mean âhot,â change happens.â
In the case of âoff of,â that change certainly has happened and there isnât much we can do about it now. (November 13, 2010)The âoff ofâ bad-grammar pandemic
A friend of mine, the award-winning writer Ed Maranan, e-mailed me this lament sometime back: âI canât stand it any more, Joe! Over the last two years, I have seen its use proliferate, and I donât know when it started becoming fashionable or grammatically acceptable, or both. I am referring to âoff of,â as in this example: âThe priest said, âNo, but it will wipe that smile off of your face
âArenât we allowed to just say âwipe that smile off your faceâ
? Iâm angry and tongue-twisted!â
The following day, Ed made this follow-up: âHi, Joe! Hereâs one more, among countless others:
ââAll 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
âSeems like mostly North American usage, but I wouldnât be surprised if itâs already in use across the Atlantic.â
Seven minutes later Ed was back again: âI just had to Google it up, Joe. Itâs worse than I thought. Itâs pandemic. As far as Iâm concerned, the only time the two can be used together is âthe send-off of the troops
,â etc. I wonder how long it would be before the sign says âKeep off of the grassâ
I must say that I had felt queasy myself over the growing use of âoff of,â 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 âoff of.â Ed is right: its usage has become pandemic.
Here are a few more usages of âoff ofâ that stuck like fishbone in my throat: âGet this bug off of me!
â âThe Internet is taking the shine off of Apple
.â âWhen moms criticize, dads back off of baby care
.â âI canât take my eyes off of you
Like most people of my generation, I have long known that âoff ofâ in constructions like âI canât take my eyes off of youâ is bad Englishâto be tolerated only as an exercise in lyrical license, as in that line from the 1967 hit single âCanât Take My Eyes Off Of You.â The scrupulously correct usage is, of course, âI canât take my eyes away from you
,â and whenever this correction was challenged, we simply invoked good English grammar and that was that.
So why todayâs âoff ofâ 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 âGet Off Of My Cloud,â whose lyrics repeat these aggressive bad-grammar lines four times: âI said, Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Hey! You! Get off of my cloud / Donât hang around âcause twoâs a crowd / On my cloud babyâŠâ
A blockbuster in both the United Kingdom and the United States, âGet Off Of My Cloudâ 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, itâs been primarily responsible for legitimizing the âoff ofâ 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 OâConner, 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, âThe answer is we all do. Everybody has a vote. The ârulesâ are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. When enough of us decide that âcoolâ can mean âhot,â change happens.â (May 16, 2009)
-------------------From the weekly column âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ by Jose A. Carillo in
The Manila Times, May 16, 2009 issues Â© 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.