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TWTS: "Out of hand" or "off hand?" It's all in your hands

Something that’s out of your hands is different from something that’s out of hand, which is usually different from something that’s offhand. So which phrase goes where? 

When our listener Bruce Sagan heard one of these phrases on Morning Edition recently, he wondered whether it was used correctly.


Sagan says, "Regarding a bankruptcy proposal for Purdue Pharma, the reporter said some states rejected it 'off hand.' I would have said 'out of hand.' Or am I being too picky?" 

Too picky? About language? We wouldn't know anything about that. However, we can look into the phrases that gave Sagan pause.

First, let’s get “out of my hands” off the table. This phrase has been in English for a long time. We can all agree that if something is out of your hands, it's out of your control. 

Take away the pronoun and you get “out of hand” which also means out of control but in a broader sense. For example, “The teacher needs to get control of the classroom before things get out of hand.” This context is, though common, is fairly new.

"Out of hand" goes back to the 14th century. At first it meant "out of reach" or "out of the way." Later on, it comes to mean "at once" or "without premeditation." Here's an example from 1883: "She'll marry you out of hand after a three month engagement." In other words, she'll be ready to go once those three months are up.


As an adjective, "offhand" goes back to the 1600s and also means unpremeditated or extemporaneous. Someone might make an offhand remark, i.e. one they thought of in the spur of the moment. In modern usage though, “offhand” can carry a negative connotation. Maybe that offhand remark didn’t sit well with others. 

The adverb form of "offhand" also means "without preparation." You might say something like, "Offhand, I think the answer is 200." That is, you haven't checked, but that's your answer without preparing first.   

Though “out of hand” and “offhand” have similar meanings, they follow different patterns in English. That is, we tend to stick with one or the other when it comes to certain verbs. 

For example, if you reject or dismiss something without a lot of thought or premeditation, you’ll reject or dismiss it out of hand. It’s not that you won’t find speakers who’ll reject or dismiss things offhand, but there’s a very strong pattern that we tend to use these verbs with “out of hand.”



Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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