Local Dallas newscaster said "where we're at" twice just now. Would a national newscaster get away with this? I consider it uneducated.
— Bryan A. Garner (@BryanAGarner) August 11, 2012
The use of at following where was first noted in 1859 by Bartlett, who observed in his Dictionary of Americanisms that it was "often used superfluously in the South and West, as in the question 'Where is he at?'" Such usage first drew the attention of critics at about the turn of the century, and they have routinely prescribed against it since. Although fairly common in speech, this construction rarely occurred in writing until the 1960s, when the idiomatic phrases where it's at and where one is at came into widespread use by jazz and rock musicians, hippies, and others […]
These phrases continue to be used today, although they have some of the passé quality of old slang. They are most likely to occur when the language and attitudes of the 1960s and early 1970s are being deliverately evoked or mimicked. Other than in these phrases, at almost never occurs after where in writing from standard sources.
But in this case, I believe that the facts are against both Mr. Garner and the editors of MWDEU.
First, in response to Bryan Garner, the specific phrase "where we're at" can often be found in on-air speech of the highly educated national radio personalities featured on NPR's Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Morning Edition. A few examples:
On Talk of the Nation 5/3/2012, NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen said (according to the online transcript):
Well, I mean, the problem now is that he's no longer under U.S. diplomatic protection and he's going to need China to let him go. Before the U.S. can even begin negotiations with the Chinese on that, they want to be very clear of what he wants and see what they can do at this point. And that's where we're at right now, this very fluid and precarious situation.
On Talk of the Nation 3/15/2012, Marilyn Geewax, NPR's senior business editor, said:
Now, maybe you're still in one of those really saggy parts of the tent where it hasn't straightened out yet. But if the tent poles keep rising and they get stronger, maybe we can lift the whole economy moving forward. And I think that's where we're at right now, where some of it is strong and sturdy and some of it is still really droopy.
On All Things Considered 11/26/2011, NPR's Kabul Bureau Chief Quil Lawrence said:
American-Pakistani relations regarding Afghanistan have just gone from bad to worse to where we're at now. Americans had for years been lambasting Pakistan for allowing Taliban safe havens and cross-border raids. And they've even accused Pakistan of training certain groups within the insurgency.
On Morning Edition 7/11/2011, the Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep said:
Let's review where we're at here. What's the danger, at least according to the president, and how much time is left?
And this phrase is not just an NPR-ism. For example, CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield used it on American Morning:
But we're not in that situation now and I think it's very tough for Americans, we're such a pragmatic people, to believe that there's nothing that we can do, and I think that's where we're at.
And Larry King uses it from time to time, e.g. here:
And that's where we're at now?
I think, certainly, this was a big day, not only for Rick Santorum, but it was also a very big day for Governor Romney. And so, certainly, we are getting there, John. I'm not ready to tell you right as I sit here with you that that's where we're at with Governor Romney, but, certainly, a big day for him and Rick Santorum as well.
And again on 8/10/2012:
After flirting with his own presidential bid last year, Trump came out in support for Romney in February of this year. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, however, would not say whether Trump would get a special spot at the national party's major gathering.
"I don't know right now what he's going to do at the convention," Reince Priebus told CNN's John Berman on "Starting Point." "But I do know that he's important to us and that he's somebody that we appreciate, because he's telling us the truth as far as where we're at in this economy."
Mr. Priebus has an undergraduate degree in English and Political Science, as well as a J.D. from the University of Miami's law school, and his speaking style in formal contexts such as these does not otherwise exhibit "uneducated" features.
But all of these are examples from speech. Is it still true, as MWDEU claims, that "at almost never occurs after where in writing from standard sources" except for ironic echoes of the 1960s in idioms like "where it's at"? One of MWDEU's own examples goes against this generalization — a quotation from Gunther S. Stent's review of S.E. Luria's Life: The Unfinished Experiment, in the NYT book review section for 9/8/1974. I'll include a larger context to help make it clear that this is not a covert invocation of 1960s song lyrics:
I think "Life: The Unfinished Experiment" is a highly successful popular introduction to a difficult scientific subject, an opinion evidently shared by the jury which bestowed upon it the 1974 National Book Award. I hold this opinion despite my belief that few unprepared readers could pass a test of specific questions on the basic principles of molecular biology after one or two readings of this book. The presentation is too dense, too abstract and too sparsely illustrated to allow a general audience to gain a working understanding of that subject.
In any case, this was probably not Luria's intent. More likely, what he meant to do was to paint a larger picture, to develop in his readers a gut feeling for where modern biology is at. And that he has surely managed to do.
And returning to the specific phrase that troubled Bryan Garner, "where we're at", it's easy to find other examples in serious writing. Malcolm S. Forbes published a 1978 pamphlet with the title Where We're At and Where We're Headed: Alfred M. Landon Lectures on Public Issues. Philip Green's Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, contains this passage:
Whom are we rooting for? What are we rooting for? If this were Sleeping with the Enemy we'd know where we're at. […] But in The Vanishing we've no idea where we're at and the dénouement, perhaps the most horrific to be found in any movie ever produced, is all the more unbearable because we've never known what to expect or where we were heading.
From Michael Lopp, Being Geek: The Software Developer's Career Handbook, O'Reilly Media 2010:
The tone and content of this meeting vary wildly by where we're at in the development cycle. If we're early in the cycle, we're talking about the state of design. If it's late in the development cycle, we're looking at confidence in the quality.
And so on.
In fairness to Garner and MWDEU, it's certainly true that where …. at retains, at least statistically, a regional and informal tinge. Thus if we search for the specific phrase "where we're at" in news sources, we find a serious bias in favor of sports stories –which at this time of year mostly means football coaches making pronouncements about their team's prospects for the coming season. In fact, these are so common that I wonder if any football coach in recent years has ever discussed his team's pre-season situation without using the phrase "where we're at".
Some current examples:
"Highlights from Bill Belichick's Friday Afternoon Q&A", 8/10/2012:
The big thing for us this week is we just have to, really the only chance we really have in the whole preseason to actually string some practice days together, so it’s important for us to get the most out of them and try to improve our team because once we play again, we’ll be playing three games right in a row. There won’t be really much time to do anything but very quickly prepare for the next game. That’s kind of where we’re at for today. On the injury front – the news on Dane [Fletcher] doesn’t look very good, so he’ll probably be out for a while, which is unfortunate because he’s worked hard, specifically this offseason and training camp. We’ve had good competition at the position so it we’ll have to look for somebody else to step in but it’s unfortunate for Dane. That’s where we’re at for today.
"[Giants' coach] Tom Coughlin Transcript", 08.11.12:
I don’t think any of that existed at all. I didn’t see any of that at all. Matter of fact, the one thing that I could say, with the exception of a few spots, I thought the effort was good. I thought the guys did play hard when they were in the game. It wasn’t a great performance, but we did play hard, and we do know where we’re at, and we do know what preseason is about.
"Bruins run past Gators at Willie Jeffries Classic", 8/11/2012:
“Some of the mistakes we had here, those are things that we can hash out like reading the blitzes and picking up those different things,” Lake Marion head coach Chris Carter said. “I think that’s one thing that is good about a scrimmage and even scrimmaging a team like O-W. That lets us see where we are at and where we need to make the necessary corrections. We’ve got a lot of guys going both ways. So, this lets us see how to maneuver certain kids in and get a feel for what we need to do heading into Darlington.”
"Looking for turnaround, BC opens with tough test", AP 8/10/2012:
''The trend with wins and losses is very obvious with everyone," he said. "But the program is going north, not south. I understand where we're at and we want to win - and the players understand that."
"NEW WAVERLY FOOTBALL — Bulldogs exceeding expectations", Huntsville Item 8/11/2012:
“I’m pleased. With where we’re at right now, we’re much further ahead than I thought we’d be and we’re getting after it and flying all around the football. That’s what you want. We have a goal and our goal is to go win, and in order to attain that goal, you’ve got to be able to give great effort every day on every play and that’s what our kids are doing right now.”
"Coach: UND ahead of the game", The Jamestown Sun 8/12/2012:
“It’s going to be base stuff; nothing too fancy,” Mussman said. “We want to see guys compete and play football. We want to see who can block and who can get off blocks. We want to see who can catch and who can cover. We’ll evaluate that so we know where we’re at the next week when we get more game-specific. (The scrimmage) will help set our depth chart going into that following week.”
"Same with our running backs and I don't know up front. That's a little bit tougher assignment. Wes is playing and let's go. Early on, we'll get them going a little bit, get them playing a little bit and see where we're at."
"Saturday SEC Scrimmage Report", 8/12/2012:
“I thought there were some really good performances, but the reality of it is it was what we needed as a team. I like where we’re at. I really do. I think there’s energy here. I think we are progressing,” [LSU coach Les] Miles said.
"Fresno State offense fails to impress in first scrimmage", 8/11/2012:
"We still have to correct a lot of things," Carr said. "That's OK. Where we're at right now, I'm pretty happy. … Guys are just ready to get back out here and show a city we're not the same team as last year. We're excited about the schemes we're running. I'm sure once we start winning, this place will be pretty packed."
"Boilermakers expect to make big jump in 2012", 8/10/2012:
"I like where we're at right now, I think we've made great progress in the program," [Purdue coach Danny] Hope said. "A program that produces championships doesn't just come in a snap of the fingers."
In contrast, if The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed a bunch of Philosophy Department chairs about their prospects in the next National Research Council Rankings, I suspect that the phrase "where we're at" would be substantially less frequent.
All the same, this is definitely a phrase that's used by educated people in formal speech, including by "national newscasters"; and it's used in writing, including academic writing, without necessarily evoking either love beads or cowboy boots.