Where we're at

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The entry for where . . . at in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes that

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?

Nor is this phrase only used by broadcasters. Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee, has been quoted using it several times, e.g. in a CNN broadcast on 4/10/2012:

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."

"Football Practice Report – August 11: Cowboys hold first scrimmage of training camp":

"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.

[Warning: Before commenting, please read "Boring preposition jokes: New termination policy", 10/4/2010. While not as urgent, the list of posts here is also relevant.]



41 Comments

  1. languagehat said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    People keep murmuring soothingly when I go off on Bryan Garner, telling me he's really very reasonable, not nearly as bad as X and Y, well worth consulting for conservative style, etc. etc. To which I say Bah, humbug. Anyone who spouts nonsense like this is not worth consulting about anything except his own personal feelings about English, if for some reason you find that a compelling subject. (I presume his views on legal usage are better informed; IANAL.)

    I wouldn't be so bitter about this if for reasons beyond my ken the otherwise excellent Chicago Manual of Style, which I (like most American copyeditors) keep close at hand and use constantly, hadn't decided to turn over their grammar section to him, at a stroke sending it back to the dark days before linguistic understanding started to influence style guides. It's a rare instance of knowledge marching backwards, comparable to hiring a creationist to write on evolution, and I object strongly.

  2. Chris Kern said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    I'm a pretty educated native speaker of English (ABD…I guess that's fairly educated) and I find "where we're at" completely unremarkable and I probably don't notice most of the time it's used.

    I'm from NW Indiana, where phrases like "Where's the car keys at?" and "Where did John go to?" are common, but those sound regional and casual to me, where "where we're at" sounds spoken, but not particularly regionally marked or casual. I think, as you imply (or state?) it's basically a set phrase nowadays.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    I see a distinction between two uses of "where at". The literal one that Chris Kern mentions, which I hear every day—as far as I can tell, a lot of speakers here in northern New Mexico never say "where" without "at"—is characteristic of people who aren't concerned with sounding educated. I'd put it in the same category as "it don't matter" and "ain't". All the examples above are figurative for "what the situation is" or "what the present state is" (which use pretty much the same metaphor). I was surprised the first time I heard that from a skilled writer, but I've realized it's common. I do hear it as a 60s-ism and feel it's too informal for standard English.

    Google results for "where is it located at".

    [(myl) The literal/figurative distinction is relevant, I think. My own intuition, for what little it's worth, is that in literal contexts (e.g. as a passenger in a car when I haven't been paying attention) I'd ask "where are we now?" but not "where're we at now?", whereas in figurative contexts (e.g. in asking about progress on a project) I'd ask "where're we at now?" but not "where are we now?". The fact that you're at a stage but in a place might be connected.]

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 9:55 am

    Same here, except I'm UK English; I don't find anything unusual about "where [something is] at" to refer to its general state of progress or existential situation. But it comes across as an Americanism (though it may not be) to use it to refer to physical location.

    Around here – we moved to Devon 17 years ago – we're still not quite used to the local dialect "Where's it to?" = "Where is it (at)?"

  5. Vanya said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 9:59 am

    I guess I still find "Where you're at" colloquial enough that the expression "where one is at" (sic) strikes me as odd. One would not produce that in normal conversation, and it would be odd to use it in writing. Although I have no problem with "where we're at" or "where I'm at".

  6. rootlesscosmo said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 10:11 am

    Jerry Friedman distinguishes a literal from an existential sense of "where we're at." In my recollection, my fellow-jazz musicians and their admirers used "where it's at" to imply broad existential claims about the conditions of human life or the character of good music; many of the quotes collected above about diplomacy, election campaigns, and sports seem to imply a stage in a sequence, "where we're at now" (with "now" explicit or unsaid.) "Where we're at [now]" has a tone of knowledge, "where it's at" a tone of knowingness.

    [(myl) Indeed. As I noted in response to Jerry Friedman, it may be relevant that we talk about being "at" a stage in a process.]

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    "Where we're at" (figurative), as against "where we are" (physical) seems to me analogous to the French "où nous en sommes" vs. "où nous sommes", and it has a distinct meaning that doesn't seem to be covered by any other succinct phrase, so it seems strange to me that anyone would object to it. I wonder, though, about its history: did it develop from an older "what we're at" (as in "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! / How I wonder what you're at!")?

  8. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 10:42 am

    Another take on the matter, on my blog.

  9. TR said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

    Do speakers who use both "where we're at" and "where we are" (only the latter is in my idiolect) ever make a distinction such that the former is used when an NP that might contextually be governed by at is expected as an answer, the latter when not? So that you might ask "Where's he at?" if expecting an answer like "The store", but not if expecting an answer like "France"?

  10. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    As Winston Churchill said… hang on.. That's a surprise… Geoff Pullum is at the door with a gun…

  11. Brett said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    To me, the metaphorical use is completely unremarkable, and I use it. The literal use does indeed sound "uneducated" to me, although I know that I use it occasionally as well. There are probably two circumstances in which I use this form. The first is the one TR mentions, where I expect to get an answer of the form, "At [XXX]." The second is when I for some reason start the sentence with a contraction. If I had time to think carefully, I might say, "Where is he?"; but if I start with, "Where's he…" I find I need to add the "…at?" to make it sound right. The stress pattern of "Where is he?" and similar utterances normally requires that I emphasize the verb, which is obviously not possible when it's contracted.

  12. Sili said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

    comparable to hiring a creationist to write on evolution, and I object strongly.

    Sadly, far too small a proportion of the public object to creationism, be it linguistic or biologic.

  13. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

    For a combination of figurative and literal meanings, differently expressed: "Tells you where you are . . . no matter where you're at" is a trademark for a medical device that indicates the position of a catheter within the patient's body.

  14. blahedo said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

    The literal usage sounds perfectly normal to my ear, and I use it regularly alongside the at-less version; the distinction, if there is one, is that "where're you at?" is unmarked (I'm asking because I'm curious, I'm not sure of the exact answer but don't expect it to be a surprising one) while "where are you?" is marked for surprise (Wait, back up, I thought I knew where you were but something you just said made me doubt my assumption). This is true whether the emphasis is on "where", "are", or "you", though each marks a somewhat different form of surprise.

    Caveat: I'm originally from the suburbs of Chicago, where the local dialect has a number of strange preposition features, so this might be part of that. (Others off the top of my head include "Are you coming with?" meaning "Are you coming [with us/along]?" and "He's by me" meaning "He's with me".)

  15. Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    Agree with TR. People have criticized by use of it, but as a (proud to a fault) SAE speaker, I push on regardless of their logic :-)

    But I do point out that when I ask "Where are you at?" I generally figure the person to be, well, *at* some location, e.g. a store, their house, etc., with the standard response being "I'm *at* X". I reckon I use "Where are you?" in a more general sense, where the answer might could include not just a location, but also an event (which, I suppose, oddly would also generally take "at" as the preposition of choice in the response).

  16. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 11:09 pm

    Obligatory mention of "where's the library at, asshole?"

  17. Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 11:31 pm

    Actually, what I just said is pretty much what Zwicky said in his blog posting: "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."

  18. Mike Yankee said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 6:27 am

    Heard in Newfoundland: "Stay where you're at, I'm comin' where you're to."

  19. Rick Sprague said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 6:53 am

    I grew up in NY state, moving to VA in my late teens (1969). I think I grew up with "where we're at" with a sense of measuring progress in an expected course of development (= "where we're up to"), and I consider that use suitable even for formal writing (as in Mark's examples). However, in the South I first heard "Where're you at?" instead of "Where are you?" to inquire about one's location, and that definitely did seem substandard. I've had the impression since then that the locative use is regional–but other commenters, not from the South, give counterexamples. Maybe the locative sense was never as restricted as I thought it was, or maybe it has been spreading in recent decades.

  20. Tom Saylor said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 7:30 am

    I don't think the facts adduced are against Mr. Garner. I take it that in saying he considers the usage uneducated Mr. Garner was making a prescriptive, not a descriptive, statement. He thinks that the usage makes people sound uneducated and that it should therefore be avoided; he doesn't seem to be claiming that educated people don't say "where we're at."

    [(myl) I'm sure it's true that "I consider it uneducated" is an accurate account of Mr. Garner's reaction to this phrase. But the question "Woud a national newscaster get away with this?" implies that his reaction is broadly shared, to the extent that a national newscaster who used the phrase would get into trouble or at least raise a controversy; that's a question that we can address empirically. We can also ask whether educated people in formal speech contexts do or don't use the phrase. The answers to those questions seem to me to weigh both against the generality of Garner's reaction, and also against the view that educated people in formal speech setting don't use this phrase.]

  21. Mary Bull said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 10:21 am

    Where I live (Tennessee), the literal meaning of this construciton is definitely found in informal communication, though I haven't heard it used much lately. The metaphorical meaning is something I do encounter rather often in both spoken and written English, without its ever striking me as unusual or colloquial. When I was in high school and college in Texas (late 1930s, mid-1940s) my teachers and professors did frown on it.

    By a delightful coincidence, after enjoying this post and its comments on Sunday, I watched the TCM movie channel's showing of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers 1937 movie "Shall We Dance?" and was greatly entertained to notice "I don't know where I'm at" in the song "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," where in the past it had been "tomayto/tomahto" in the song's lyrics that got my attention.

  22. Mary Bull said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 10:34 am

    Woe is me, my Wiki URL doesn't bring up the "Shall We Dance?" page. Let's see if the text of the lyrics on a Louis Armstrong page will be accessible through this link.

    Look there for "I don't know where I'm at" in the first verse — if you're of a mind to click on the URL above.

  23. Mary Bull said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    Sorry, everyone. Just not my day for copying-and-pasting URLs. One last try:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shall_We_Dance_(1937_film)

  24. Doreen said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 11:16 am

    @Tom Saylor

    Garner asked, "Would a national newscaster get away with this?"

    I suppose it depends on how you interpret "get away with", but I don't see how the evidence cited supports the answer Garner implied with his leading question.

    [(myl) Exactly — I wasn't able to find any evidence that national newscasters (or Reince Priebus) were criticized for their usage. If they had (for example) used infer for imply, I'm pretty sure that they would have gotten slammed for it.

    Let me emphasize again that where. . . at in general is indeed regional and colloquial. But there do seem to be particular uses — for instance figurative "where we're at" — which seem to have been adopted into standard American English.]

  25. Tim Martin said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    I used to be anti-"at." Then I got over it. I feel like "where we're at" and the like persist because of the stress pattern – it seems easier to say than "where we are." That's the reason I enjoy using it today.

  26. Doug Henning Jr. (@likethemagician) said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    So long as where we're at has two turntables and a microphone, I'm okay with it.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    @TR: Here's a discussion by a linguist in sci.lang about the distinction between "where" and "where…at" in his dialect, from Georgia. It seems to be a bit different from the distinctions already mentioned. (There's also a lot of painful personal bickering in the responses, I should warn you.)

    @Coby Lubliner: I'd always omit the "at" in all of MYL's examples in the post, and I don't think anyone would have any trouble understanding me. So there is a succinct (more succinct!) way to say that. Where that's a valid basis for an objection is another question.

  28. Eugene said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

    The Wh-pronoun commonly represents the NP complement of the PP rather than the whole PP (what you're talking about, who you went with, which room you are in…), so the pattern is quite familiar rather than being an oddity. In the case of a locative, we have both options – Where=PP and Where=NP.
    There's a potential meaning distinction (and overlap), as several commenters have noted, and maybe the intonation gives a clue. Compare 'Where ARE you?' with 'Where are you AT?' or, more likely, 'Where(r) ya AT?' The information structure is a little different.

  29. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    Here's a video of Garner pontificating on the matter. He mentions it at 2:56, then covers it more fully at 3:37. In between the two is a very dubious analysis of He's not as tall as me/I.

  30. Jonathon said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    I have to agree with languagehat. Garner doesn't adequately distinguish between facts and opinions when it comes to usage, and it makes all of his advice untrustworthy. Even in cases where you can prove him wrong on the facts, it doesn't change his conclusions—the fact that "where it's at" is used on NPR would just be taken as evidence that uneducated speech is taking over.

    I remember being excited when I heard that Chicago was adding a chapter on grammar and usage, but I was almost instantly disappointed once I saw it and realized how useless it was.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    All this reminds me of another situation connected (in a different way) to the rule against contractions at the end of sentences, namely "there's" with plural subjects or whatever they are. From greatest to least conformity with the usual prescription, and in the present tense:

    1. "There are" with all plurals.
    2. "There are" with plurals except "there's" when a contraction is permissible and desired.
    3. "There's" and "there is" with all plurals.

    1a. No "at" in any situation.
    2a. "At" for figurative and no "at" for literal.
    3a. "At" at least optional for both figurative and literal.

    On another where-at subject, people at alt.usage.english are discussing this sentence from The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles: "A picturesque congeries of some dozen or so houses and a small boatyard—in which, arklike on its stocks, sat the thorax of a lugger—huddled at where the Cobb runs back to land."

    [(myl) On the "there's PluralNounPhrase" business, see "When 'there's' isn't 'there is"",9/1/2005, and "There's a bunch of reasons — or are there?",1/13/2007.]

  32. GeorgeW said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    It might be worth noting that contractions seem to be preferred with the 'are-at' constructions and prohibited with the bare 'are' constructions.

    That is where we're at
    ?That is where we are at.

    That is where we are.
    *That is where we're

  33. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

    Regarding Garner's perceived stature, I think a lot of his reputation for sweet reason comes from his decision to eschew petty name calling. He slips up from time to time, but to bystanders exposed to the likes of John Simon or Robert Hartwell Fiske (or even Fowler, with his "barbarisms") Garner must seem very reasonable indeed. It would be easy for someone not paying attention to not notice that Garner's opinions are substantially the same as his more vulgar colleagues, and no better reasoned.

    That being said, I disagree with Languagehat on one point: Garner is a one-stop source of standard company-line prescriptive opinion. This makes him a convenient source, and a pretty good baseline for checking various lunatic opinions to see if they are received wisdom among that crowd or fringe opinions even for them.

  34. Julie said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 11:11 pm

    I do use "at" on a regular basis, and I'm not Southern. (I grew up in rural northern California.) "Where are you?" if not an expression of surprise, seems to imply a more permanent idea than "where y'at" (my normal pronunciation), which implies "at this moment" or "exactly where."

  35. Eugene said,

    August 14, 2012 @ 12:53 am

    On the literal/figurative hypothesis, in colloquial speech we are very often interested in a persons literal location or progress along a route. My hunch is that we relatively rarely inquire about a person's physical location or progress along a spatial path in on-air speech or formal written contexts, while issues of figurative process toward policy goals and so on are quite frequent.

    Also, if informal, regional speech employs a potentially meaningful distinction that (supposedly) is lacking in standard English, why do people automatically assume that the informal and regional is the defective variant? Maybe it's the standard that's missing something.

  36. Jason Eisner said,

    August 14, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    It's hard to tell what's going on from the range of data in Mark's original post, since nearly all of them are the specific phrase "where we're at." Given only those data, it might be that NPR newscasters and MWDEU editors are only comfortable with "where … at" within certain restricted contexts, e.g.:

    a few fixed idiomatic phrases
    phrases with the verb "to be" (cf. "where we've ended up at")
    phrases with the subject "we" (cf. "where your brother's at on gay marriage")
    relative clauses rather than questions (cf. "where are we at")
    a metaphorical location as suggested by several posters above

    So, more research required?

    If there's a sharp boundary, it's probably not at 4. above, since googling turns up plenty of titles like "Where are we at with point- of- care testing in haematology?," "Immigration: Where are we at?," and "Surgery in space: Where are we at now?"

  37. Jim said,

    August 14, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    Julie, where in northern California? Places like Fresno are considerd northern California, and that whole area has been an island of mid-South speech ever since the Dust Bowl.

  38. Julie said,

    August 14, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    I was born and raised in Fort Bragg, and spent my entire adult life in Sacramento. I certainly grew up listening to Southern speech, but my family didn't pick up much of it. And really? Fresno as northern? Stockton seems to be careful to distinguish itself as Central, and that's a long way north of Fresno.

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 14, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

    @Eugene: I'm afraid I didn't state the literal/figurative hypothesis precisely, and I don't think anyone else did either, but here are some COCA data, and I'll see if I can come up with a hypothesis. I switched to past tense and third person plural for a change. I took most examples of the form prices are 3% above where they were (at) in 2010 as literal, but I'm not sure I was consistent. There were maybe 8 or 10 of those, mostly without at. "Irrelevant" means that in my subjective judgement, at could not have been added. For example, "where they were going", "So I was in bed in a hospital where they were checking me out," "But this little word was found in a site in Norwich in Norfolk where they were doing a lot of excavation." That last one might be doubtful.

    From the first 98 hits out of 3011 on where they were (none of which 98 were followed by at):

    Irrelevant: 52
    Literal: 40
    Figurative: 4
    Not sure: 2

    Of the 22 hits on where they were at:
    Irrelevant: 4
    Literal, but of the form where they were at the time, so not containing the deprecated where at: 7
    Literal, containing the deprecated where at: 3
    Figurative, not containing the deprecated where at: 3
    Figurative, containing the deprecated where at: 5

    If I were a linguist, I'd be more careful and look at different registers and get bigger samples, especially with "at". However, I think this provides some support for the hypothesis that the deprecated at is correlated with figurative use.

  40. Mar Rojo said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    TR asked: Do speakers who use both "where we're at" and "where we are" (only the latter is in my idiolect) ever make a distinction such that the former is used when an NP that might contextually be governed by at is expected as an answer, the latter when not? So that you might ask "Where's he at?" if expecting an answer like "The store", but not if expecting an answer like "France"?

    If so, why don't the same speakers use "Where's he in?", when expecting "France" as a reply?

  41. Mar Rojo said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    An oldie on the same at Motivated Grammar: http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/08/06/where-are-you-at/

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