Episode 311: February 23, 2012
by Neal Whitman
Grammar Girl here, and today I’m going to tell you where it’s at!
Just kidding. I used the phrase “Where it’s at” in an episode a few years ago, and a listener called me on it. How embarrassing, given that I always give the same advice about phrases like “Where it’s at” or “Where are you at?,” whether it’s in a radio interview, in a podcast episode, or in a book, I always say that because phrases like “Where are you at?” and “Where are you?” mean the same thing, you should omit the “at.” I’m standing by that advice, but today we’re going to talk about
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First of all, I want to make one exception to my advice about “where” and “at” when it comes to the phrase “where it’s at.” By now, this particular phrase, meaning that something is really cool, is an established idiom of American English. If you take out the “at” and say something like, “Ballroom dancing is where it is,” that’s nothing but a tautology: It’s located where it’s located. But if you say “Ballroom dancing is where it’s at,” that’s something else entirely, and in a not-so-serious context, it’s acceptable. Having said that, I hereby retract my apology for using the idiom “where it’s at.”
Now let’s talk about a more typical case of “where” used with “at”: The question “Where are you at?,” which means the same thing as “Where are you?” To understand how this “at” got into the picture, we need to look at the history of “where” and its relatives in English.
In present-day English, the word “where” can be used in several ways. Of course, you can use it to ask about a place where something is or something happens, as in “Where are you?” or “Where do you live?” I’ll call this the “where” of location. This is the “where” that’s always redundant when you add an “at” to it.
You can also use “where” to ask about an origin, in questions like, “Where are you from?” The preposition “from” isn’t redundant, because “Where are you from?” does not mean the same thing as “Where are you?” I’ll call this the “where” of origin.
Furthermore, you can use “where” to ask about a destination, in questions like, “Where are you going?” I’ll call this the “where” of destination. Sometimes people will add a “to” to the end, and say, “Where are you going to?” Like “Where are you at?,” this is redundant, since “Where are you going to?” and “Where are you going?” mean the same thing.
Even so, I don’t get complaints so often about “Where are you going to?” That might be because “where to” isn’t always redundant the way “where at” is. True, it’s redundant in “Where are you going to?,” but how about in “Where are you swimming to?” That doesn’t mean the same thing as “Where are you swimming?”
“Where are you swimming to?” is asking about a destination. A possible answer might be, “To the buoy and back,” or “To Cambodia.” But “Where are you swimming?” just asks about the place where you’re doing the swimming. The answer might be, “At the pool” or “In the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean.”
English used to have three common words for “where”: “where,” “whence,” and “whither.”
English used to use three separate words for “where” of location, “where” of origin, and “where” of destination. For “where” of location, there was just plain “where.”
For “where” of origin, English had “whence,” a single word that has the same meaning as “where from” or “from which.” These days, “whence” is seldom used; in the Corpus of Contemporary American, it has a mere 500 or so hits, compared to the more than 400,000 for “where.”
When people do use “whence,” they often slip into redundancy by using it along with the word “from,” even though the meaning of “from” is already built into “whence.” For example, the phrase “the country from whence we came” is redundant, because it means the same thing as just “the country whence we came.” In more current English, that would be phrased as “the country that we came from,” or “the country from which we came.”
By the way, English also has corresponding forms for “here” and “there” of origin: “hence” and “thence” mean simply “from here” and “from there.”
For “where” of destination, English has “whither,” a single word that has the same meaning as “where to,” or “to which.” “Whither” is even rarer these days than “whence”: It gets just shy of 200 hits. Like “whence,” it has a distinctly archaic feel. I can’t imagine a taxi driver asking me “Whither?” Well, I can, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
When I think of “whither,” I think of the line from the King James translation of the book of Ruth (1:16): “Whither thou goest, I will go.” Check it out: “Whither thou goest” is a single clause made up of three words, and all three of them are words that are hardly used in present-day English. In more-current English, the verse would be, “Where (or wherever) you go, I’ll go.”
You’ve probably guessed by now that the corresponding destination forms of “here” and “there” are “hither” and “thither.” So if you’d like to say, “You can’t get there from here” and sound old-fashioned, you can say, “You can’t get thither hence.”
“Where at” Corresponds to “Where from” and “Where To”
So how does all this connect to the rise of “where at”?
With the decline of “whence” and “whither,” it fell to “where” had to pick up the slack. It had to be equipped with a “from” to do the job of “whence,” and sometimes with “to” to do the job of “whither.” At this point, locational “where” is the odd one out. We have “where to,” “where from,” and just plain “where.” It was almost inevitable that an “at” would creep in there at some point to level things out.
“Whence” and “whither” have been in more-or-less steady decline since at least the mid-1700s, and according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, it was only later, in 1859, that “where at” was first noted in a Dictionary of Americanisms. They agree that “where at” is almost never used in formal writing, and attribute its growth in popularity in the 1960s to the idiom “where it’s at” that I began this episode with.
I’ll end with one situation in which “Where it’s at” is actually perfectly standard English. Don’t believe me? OK, get ready: Someone asks you, “Where was the crow sitting?” Your answer: “On the branch is where it sat!”
This article was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com. Check out his blog.