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WORDSWORDSWORDS # 10 (Based on or off/Whoa or Woah)

Sometimes, the language issues I raise in this series of blog posts are widely discussed by usage experts like Benjamin Dreyer (whose Dreyer's English is an essential text in my AP Lit classes). Sometimes, the concerns are mine alone and reveal a mindset that some would deem rigid (even though I'm right!). For instance, on the long list of solecisms that I am compelled to correct in my students' usage (and rail at when I hear it in on my television) is the phrase "based off" or even worse "based off of" (Ugh!). The rise in this clear misusage has been exponential in its growth rate in recent years as you can see in this copy of a Google NGram:

This usage cannot really be correct, right? You "base" something on top of something else to give it a support structure. How can you "base" something off another thing? I turned to Merriam-Webster.

When the verb base is used with its “to find a foundation or basis for” meaning, it usually pulls a preposition along with it to do the job. Typically and historically, that preposition is on, or somewhat less frequently, upon:

Our modern prophetic idealism is narrow because it has undergone a persistent process of elimination. We must ask for new things because we are not allowed to ask for old things. The whole position is based on this idea that we have got all the good that can be got out of the ideas of the past. — G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, 1910

The prepositions on and upon seem logical enough for the phrase: you find a foundation or basis for something on or upon something else: you build on that foundation or basis.

But Webster points out that the change in usage is a growing one:

But increasingly we are seeing off filling the role on and upon hold:

Diets at the time, for rich and poor alike, were based off the humoral science of the ancient Greeks, which held that unevenness between the body’s four humors—blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile) and melancholy (black bile)—caused every kind of ailment. — Michael Snyder, The New York Times Style Magazine, 17 July 2020

We don’t know why “based off” (often extended to “based off of”) is moving into territory “based on” has occupied since the mid-18th century, but we do know that its use is relatively new. Preliminary research shows it popping up in recorded speech as far back as 1979...But if the use strikes you as very new that would make good sense: it’s seen a remarkable increase in popularity in the 21st century. Interestingly, the synonymously used phrase “going off (of)” has followed a similar use trajectory:

To see a room rate well under $200 is a rarity…. The occupancy rate during my stay seemed quite low, going off what I was able to see, with not many guests checking in or out and no crowds in the public spaces, and so social distancing wasn't an issue. — Paul Oswell, Business Insider, 8 Oct. 2020

The phrase going off (of) evokes the image of moving away from information or an idea that serves as a useful point of departure. It’s likely that “based off (of)” evokes the same image for people who use it.

In truth, though, it doesn’t really matter if “based off” makes logical sense. While there are observable patterns and semantic explanations for many verb-preposition partnerships, there are also plenty of examples for partnerships that resist analysis. We can, for example, drive down a street or up a street and be moving in the same direction, and though we love that people look words up in our dictionary, we don’t really know why English speakers decided that “looking a word up in the dictionary” was preferable to “looking a word in the dictionary,” which was what they’d been saying for centuries.

“Based off (of)” is still rare enough (and new enough) that it’s likely to be noticed by some and to be judged an error. Based on that fact, you might want to avoid it.

Part of this Grammar Girl video goes on for a bit about this usage:

Well, I guess I should be relieved that Webster suggests you stay away from this locution, but only because it isn't used enough and would be seen as an error. That sure sounds like it might one day be deemed an acceptable phrasing. Grammar Girl is keeping her eye on the malleability of the phrasing as well. As I have discussed in many of the other language blog posts, language is fluid and usage changes, so prescriptive grammar and usage (the variety that English teachers specialize in) is largely doomed over time!

I am also seeing a dramatic rise in the misspelling of the imperative verb "Whoa!", which is what you say when you want something, particularly the horse you are straddling, to stop. The variant that comes up quite frequently today is spelled "Woah!", which I can't help but pronounce in my head as Wo-uh. "Wo-uh, horsey" just doesn't sound right!

When I examined the NGram of usage, I was surprised that the variant "Woah", which is very much on the rise, actually made some minor incursions in the 1940s and in the late 1800s. Literacy rates have improved significantly since the days of the Old West, so what is prompting this change today?

Grammar Girl suggests that there might be multiple meanings of the words for some speakers:

The ‘Woah’ Spelling

And what about the other spelling that most editors would tell you is wrong? I’ve seen multiple people argue that the two spellings mean different things. That what we consider the correct spelling is how you tell a horse to stop, and what we consider the wrong spelling is how you express wonderment, like “Wooooaaaahhh.” And some people are definitely making a distinction that way, but it’s not the accepted way to write it yet. I’ve also seen multiple people comment that W-O-A-H looks like it should be pronounced “whoa-ah” since it looks like it should rhyme with “Noah,” and wow, did that ruin any chance of it having a different meaning for me! Now that I’ve seen it that way, I can’t unsee it.

In a “Words We’re Watching” blog post, the Merriam-Webster editors actually say they’re watching W-O-A-H as an alternate spelling of “whoa,” but not as a word with a different meaning. They track how words are used in published text, and they’ve seen an increase in the W-O-A-H spelling since around 1990 (and a Google Ngram search shows the same thing), but it still looks like those are mostly errors that slipped through editing rather than people deliberately writing it a different way. For what it’s worth, the earliest entry in the Urban Dictionary for the W-O-A-H spelling doesn’t show up until 2003.

According to Webster, "whoa" as a command to stop has been around since the 15th Century. Shakespeare used it! When you plug in "Woah" on the Merriam-Webster site, this is what appears:

The word you've entered isn't in the dictionary. Click on a spelling suggestion below or try again...

And I can't see the always politically incorrect Yosemite Sam shouting "Woah". Can you?


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