Wednesday 2 July 2014

On being at

A correspondent writes to ask about what she calls 'the rise of the unnecessary use of at on the end of questions, as in Where are you at?, and wonders what's going on. Is it simply a tautology?

There's more to it than that. Semantically, where is a very wide-ranging question-word, covering such meanings as general explanation ('Where will it all end?'), broad location ('Where is Denmark?'), specific location ('Where did I leave my glasses?'), intended destination ('Where are you headed?'), and point of origin ('Where have you been?'). Kids (and some adults) like to play with the ambiguity. Where do you live?' On planet Earth.

Particles help to sharpen the focus of the question. 'Where are you going?' means the same as 'Where are you going to?', but the to emphasises the sense of direction. Adverbs like exactly do the same thing: 'Where exactly...?' The motivation for 'Where are you at?' seems to be a a desire to establish more precisely the location of the addressee. We need to look carefully at contexts to see the motivation. Here's a case in point:

X is on the train, travelling to meet Y, and Y wants to check up on whether he'll be there in time. Y calls his mobile. 'Where are you?' X replies 'I'm on the train'. This isn't specific enough for Y, who can't now ask 'Yes but where are you?' as a follow-up question. He has to rephrase, and one of the ways, evidently, is to say 'Yes, but where are you at?' - where exactly have you reached? Or, of course, to start the conversation by asking the question in that way.

The usage is reinforced by other constructions with a similar end-placed particle, all of which sharpen the focus of the interrogative, such as 'Where are you up to?', 'Where are you from?', 'Where are you near to?', and so on. There may also be some reinforcement from the idiomatic use of the same construction, in which the enquiry is more about a person's state of mind or stage of achievement ('Where are you at?' 'I've nearly finished') or a fashionable event ('Market Street is where it's at'). I suspect most uses of 'Where are you at?' will contain a semantic nuance not present in the simple 'Where are you?' So it's not simply a tautology.


Tom Dawkes said...

There is a common Cardiff-area idiom "Where to is it?" which doesn't seem to be essentially different in meaning from "Where is it?"

Chips Mackinolty said...

And of course "where are you at?" can also refer to a state of mind or belief as much as a physical location. For example, "I believe the moon is made of cheese" may be answered with "where are you at?" -- with a probable stress on the word "you". The question "where are you?" would be meaningless in this context.

@BobKLite said...

One such nuance is the absence of any geographical sense: 'Where you're coming from don't matter; what matters is where you're at.'


@BobKLite said...

PS Chris MacK's comment foresaw mine - they were both in moderation at the time.

I've thought of a - possibly - early instance of this on Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' album:

'...I am as constant as the Northern Star'. And I said:
'Constantly in the darkness, where's that at? If you want me I'll be in the bar.'


David Crosbie said...

Final at seems to provide another sort of focus, namely intonation and stress. Without it, the default stress is on the verb

Where ↘ARE you?

The preposition allows some of the stress to fall on where

↗WHERE are you ↘AT?

Stress exclusively on where would imply that the speakers knows the answer to some related question(s).

I know the meeting's ↘TOMORROW. But ↘WHERE is it?

Ruth said...

"Where's that at?" In the Joni Mitchell's song seems to imply disbelief in the location (psychic location, I suppose). Bewilderment without the disbelief might prompt, "Where are you coming from?" Which tends to be a genuine question rather than a dismissal. "What are you like?" is another example - more an exclamation than a genuine question.