Based – Off and On

March 26, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

“This is based off of self-interest . . . .” wrote one student. Another wrote, “It’s an idea based off others from past years.” 

This construction sounded wrong to my ears. What happened to “based on”? Was this some local North New Jersey variant, like the New Yorkers’ waiting on line when everyone else in the US waits in line? But then I saw it in The Guardian last week:
Kang and her colleagues sent out 1,600 fabricated resumes, based off of real candidates, to employers in 16 different metropolitan areas in the US.
Lexis-Nexis turned up a few others just since the start of the year, and it wasn’t just New Jersey, or even the US.
  • “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl “ is based off of the book by Jesse Andrews, (Berkshire Eagle) “We should set a baseline, and that's what the salaries should be based off.” (Chicago Daily Herald)
  • . . .little should be read into the upcoming Capital One Cup game based off this result. (Manchester Evening News, UK)
  • . . . schools estimated the number of children in their zone based off a ballot sent out in September (Manawatu Standard, New Zealand)
“Busy prepositions, always on the go,” said “Schoolhouse Rock.”* But it seems to me that prepositions are remarkably stable – those New Yorkers are still waiting on line, even though “on line” has added a much different and widely used meaning.

How did we get “based off” and “based off of”? How did this diffusion happen? It’s not like some fashion in clothing. It’s not created in Language Central and sent out amid a big publicity campaign. Nor did any celebrities start using it. Nor is it like the words that people are fully aware of and consciously choose, the phrases that are groovy for a minute or two and then become old hat, or those that are totally awesome and become part of the language and that nobody has an issue with.

My Lexis-Nexis search for “based off” turned up about 300 hits for 2016. (Lexis-Nexis does not consider “of” to be worthy of counting, so adding it to a word or phrase – “based off of” – is useless.) In the same period for 2010, the count was 100. In 2000, zero.

The Google nGrams database of books tells a similar story of the rapid rise of “based off of.” Of course, it is, by several orders of magnitude, still dwarfed by “based on.” But this graph, with “based off of multiplied by 100,000, shows its recent and rapid rise.

The change is probably generational. Older speakers like me will cling to “based on”; but “based off” or “based off of” will be the choice of an increasing number of younger people. It won’t catch up to “based on” immediately. It’s not the faddish kind of change that will happen in a couple of days. Or do I mean “in a couple days”?

* The song is here. It was written by jazz pianist/composer Bob Dorough, and he performs it with trumpeter Jack Sheldon. Other jazzers, notably Dave Frishberg and Blossom Dearie, contributed to “Schoolhouse Rock” as writers and performers. Busy jazz musicians.

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