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TWTS: Can't take our eyes off "off of"

The 1967 song "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" was one of Frankie Valli's biggest hits.

It's been covered by dozens of artists, including rapper Lauryn Hill. Listeners of a certain age probably remember Heath Ledger's interpretation in the 1999 romantic comedy "10 Things I Hate About You."

This song is also one of the first things we thought of when a listener asked us about the construction "off of." 

That's because although Valli's hit doesn't have this construction in the title, it is in the lyrics: "You're just too good to be true, can't take my eyes off of you..." What's curious is that some artists, including Lauryn Hill, choose to add the "of" to the titles of their covers. 

So which construction is right? That's what Ian Purvis wanted to know. He asked "Is [off of] one of those Old English constructions or more recent, and is it in fact redundant?"

The compound preposition "off of" goes back to at least the 1500s. The Oxford English Dictionary cites this quote from 1567: "His eye went never off of her." You can also find examples from the writings of Shakespeare and Daniel Defoe.

So it's not new, but is "off of" wrong? Professor Anne Curzan says no, but it does get criticized. It didn't attract much attention until the late 19th century when commentators began criticizing it. It's now often seen as colloquial or informal.

"The fact is, 'off of' is idiomatic, and it's on the rise in written American English," says Curzan. "It's more common in American English than British English, and you can certainly find it in more formal written English."

Once we were able to get "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" out of our heads, we started thinking about other two-word prepositions such as "outside of." To hear what Curzan had to say about that, listen to the audio above.

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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