Thursday, March 5, 2015

'Off of' and 'out of'...

It seems to be an American habit, but perhaps not exclusively—American habits have a way of colonising other cultures, do they not?—to say of someone that he ‘got off of his horse’... or the chair or the bed or the train... ‘That’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase,’ Pollonius might say.

First of all, it’s not necessary to say ‘off of’. ‘He stepped off of the ladder’ tells us no more than ‘He stepped off the ladder’. But, secondly, can’t we be a little more imaginative than this? There is a perfectly good expression for ‘getting off of a horse’: ‘He dismounted’. I can say, ‘He stepped off [of] the ladder’, or I can say, ‘He climbed down’ (assuming we already know he is up there). No manuscript I ever edit will retain the phrase ‘off of’ when I return it to the author.

Then there is ‘out of’. ‘He took the watch out of his pocket’ may seem like a perfectly simple and natural thing to say. But why use two words when one will suffice? ‘He took the watch from his pocket.’

There are a few others I could toss in. ‘He stood up...’ Is there any other way to stand than up? ‘He sat down...’ Ditto. ‘He stood.’ ‘He sat.’ ‘The expression on his face...’ Where else is an expression likely to be? ‘His expression.’

I suspect the issue here is that we often write as we speak. When we speak the words are jumping out of... er, from... our mouths as soon as we think them. They are, indeed, unedited. This is sometimes fine for writing dialogue, but not, generally, the narrative which surrounds it. Even in dialogue it can become so ‘naturalistic’ as to be unreadable. When we write we have time to think of a better word. We can erase the mistakes, edit out the hesitations. We can take the time to use the correct grammar. I never send an unedited email, or even an unedited text message or tweet. That’s not to say that I always edit them well!

Even in dialogue, or in a first person narrative, there is an art to creating a naturalistic feel which is, in fact, highly crafted and artificial. In writing we represent and evoke, rather than seeking to reproduce stark reality. 

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