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'I took it off him' OR 'I took it from him'. I know that the second version is correct (unless it refers to an item that is literally on top of somebody, eg a wardrobe had fallen on someone), but what is the grammatical explanation?

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I don’t understand your question. The grammar is the same, no matter whether you use off or from. Both are prepositions. – tchrist Feb 7 '13 at 12:53
You mean as in stealing it or taking it off his hands? – mplungjan Feb 7 '13 at 13:15
As in taking an item away from somebody. As in "I took the ipod off him". I see from the answer below that the grammar is correct for both versions. – S Foreman Feb 7 '13 at 13:56

Notwithstanding the excellent points made about this not being a grammatical issue, off is not even "wrong" in any aspect. It may not be a word you would use in an elevated register, but it is certainly used to express a nuance in slang that from doesn't handle or for which it seems too formal or "correct" a statement.

Simply put, off is often used with take (or get or any verb of acquisition) to suggest a forceful or cavalier (and probably illegitimate or even illegal) removal of an item from someone else, who has probably been victimized in the process.

My grandfather took this knife off a German soldier he killed in WWII.

The pickpocket got the Rolex off some dumb out-of-towner in Times Square.

Where did I get the candy bar? I took it off Alice during recess.

Especially in the latter two examples, the use of from would seem too formal and would probably at least give the impression that the transaction might have been in some sense legitimate.

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I am beginning to think I am not so much pedantic as archaic - using 'off' was very definitely very much slang a decade or so ago, and 'from' was the norm in spoken English. In spoken English it does imply that the 'taker' has authority or illegitimate power over the person in possession of the item. – S Foreman Feb 7 '13 at 14:03
@S Foreman: it's much older than a decade ... here it is in 1969. – Peter Shor Feb 7 '13 at 22:22

One synonym for "off" is "away from". So "I took it away from him" and "I took it off him" mean the same thing. I wouldn't go so far as to say that "took it off him" is incorrect, just that it's a bit colloquial and very informal. It wouldn't be appropriate for formal writing or speech, but other than being in the wrong register for pedants and high-level speakers and sensitive listeners, it's grammatical.

Therefore, the answer to your question is that there is no grammatical reason that the expression is incorrect.

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Another synonym for "off" is simply "from". Thus "I got/bought it off a man in a pub", for example. – FumbleFingers Feb 7 '13 at 13:58
I guess I am a pendant, then!! Though I was taught in grammar lessons at school that 'take off' is incorrect when writing, unless it is in the context of speech. It is idiomatic, or slang. Many thanks for the clarification. – S Foreman Feb 7 '13 at 14:04
Slang should be handled carefully. On the other hand, idiomatic utterances are almost always preferable to non-idiomatic ones. You'd usually get a few raised eyebrows if you said 'I bathed' rather than 'I had / took a bath.' The primary meaning of idiomatic isn't the adjectival sense of the primary meaning of idiom. (see senses 1 at thefreedictionary.com/idiomatic ) – Edwin Ashworth Feb 7 '13 at 15:39
Idion/idiomatic - Aha, yes I see. Many thanks. – S Foreman Feb 7 '13 at 15:41

You ask "what is the grammatical explanation". As various people have pointed out, there isn't one, because there is no grammatical difference.

But as you say, there is a difference in what context the two phrases are accepted, and you might ask for an explanation of this. The answer is prestige; or, to put it another way, fashion. Smart, educated, people said from him, and taught people who said off him that they were wrong. There's no other reason.

(And as for people who say off of him ... )

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Searching through Google books, I suspect that this sense of "take it off" might be an expression that originated in the U.S. sometime in the first half of the 20th century, and has only recently spread to the U.K. So it's currently more accepted over here, although it's certainly not in a formal register. – Peter Shor Feb 9 '13 at 13:03
Not at all. The OED says "Of a source: from the charge or possession of; esp. with take, buy, borrow, hire, etc. Also expressed by from prep. Cf. OF prep. Now chiefly colloq." It gives examples (with spelling 'of') back to the fourteenth century. – Colin Fine Feb 12 '13 at 0:24

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