Tonight I heard someone say, "We're going off tangent here."

I take this to be a mistaken conflation of "off on a tangent" with "off track."

However, is a shift occurring? Is "off tangent" developing some currency? Is it becoming accepted? Or is it still fundamentally incorrect?

  • 1
    Sounds like a slip of the lip to me. Never heard it before, but then I never read "I'm gonna loose my mind" until the Internet became popular. People will say anything. Pay them no mind. They'll later claim to have been misquoted or misunderstood, after admitting that they misspoke.
    – user21497
    Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 6:38
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    I think it is gaining traction. People in general don't know what a tangent is. To most, it might be assumed to mean "track". Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 6:45
  • That may be it, @AmigableClarkKant. If I hear (or read) "off tangent" I immediately think "But a tangent is a line away ... perpendicular ... radius .. thingy" (I half-remember it). So is "off-tangent" a movement back towards the circle, getting back on track, or a move even further away from it?
    – njd
    Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 9:27
  • @njd, I think it's anywhere but not following the circling motion. Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 11:30
  • @njd - If we take it literally, I think "off tangent" would mean digressing from a digression. If the "circle" is your (circumscribed) discussion, going "on a tangent" would mean heading off on a straight line away from that circle. Going "off tangent" implies (to me) that you were "on a tangent" in the first place, so "off tangent" implies that you are leaving the digression and entering "free space" -- nothing is connected to anything else and anything can happen! All of that said, I seriously doubt that anyone who uses the phrase "off tangent" thinks of it that way.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 17:31

3 Answers 3


I suspect that the person who said "We're going off tangent here" may have had in mind not "off track" but "off topic." Going "off track" may indicate either jumping the track (as a derailed train might) or leaving the marked trail (and being in danger of getting lost). Both of those possibilities are fairly strong negative descriptions of going wrong.

In contrast, "going off topic" or "getting off topic" simply means being diverted into an area that isn't the focus of present business. In this respect, it has much the same meaning as "going off on a tangent."

In geometry a "tangent" is a straight line that touches a circle or sphere at exactly one point and then runs infinitely away from that point in both directions. Going off topic is likewise moving steadily away from the point of the meeting or discussion. The problem in both cases isn't that the conversation is utterly derailed or lost in the wilderness; it's that starting from a point of contact with the relevant topic, the conversation is moving farther away from it.

A Google Books search indicates that the phrase "go off tangent" goes back more than 90 years and that it is growing in popularity rather than declining. The earliest instance I found in the search results is from Woman's Home Companion volume 51 (1924), where the usage is clearly geometric:

The head waiter went away and returned with the manager. The manager pushed directly across the floor toward the couple. Away they slid. Doggedly he stalked them. As though unaware of his presence, they drew around him a perfect circle, then went off tangent like a comet. He kept after them, bumping couples; soon he felt as absurd as a mastiff chasing birds.

The next match is unmistakably figurative, though somewhat ambiguous—in a snippet from a novel by Edward Dahlberg, Those Who Perish (1934) [combined snippets]:

"Is that a motion?" asked the Secretary in a tallish voice which went off tangent.

"I make it a motion, Mr. Chairman," said the manufacturer of broadcloth.

"Now I think we're getting somewhere," said the man with the adenoidal boom.

The oldest clear-cut instance I found is from Hearings of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business, volume 3 (1954), which involves testimony from a man who evidently was held in one of the infamous Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s:

Mr. Shibata. And in the camp I became active in different work. Am I going off tangent?

Mr. Purcell. They will stop you if you go off tangent.

Mr. Jonas. Quite all right.

From the same year, in Edmund Bergler, The Writer and Psychoanalysis, we have this specimen:

The analyst, misunderstanding what is going on, interprets the oedipal repetition, with the result that facts and interpretation are at odds and the whole analysis goes off tangent.

The next oldest is also from political discourse, in this case the Nigeria House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates, volume 18, part 2 (1965):

[Unidentified speaker]: The Member for Gaya North (Alhaji Yunusa) made some very important points though he was going off tangent, but there are arithmetical and geometrical tangents which are admissible, even in trade. This his off tangent is admissible even in trade. He said that we should—

Mr. A. T. Mbegbu (Bende West): I think that when we refer to tangents we talk of things falling off. Is the Minister of Trade now trying to include the points "off tangent" or is he trying to exclude them?

Representative of the numerous examples that a Google Books search found from recent years is this one from Dan F., Don't Drink and Go to Meetings: My Journey to Recovery (2011):

Jay also had a tendency to ramble on during meetings while he was sharing—going off tangent about the beach and the girls at the beach and so on and so forth.

In none of these examples does "going off tangent" express the intended idea as clearly as would "going off on a tangent," "going off topic," "going off track," or "going off target." But to deny that the wording is in idiomatic use is to deny reality.

  • "Off track" could, conceivably, also refer to the concept of tracking, as a sniper tracks their target, or a VCR head tracks the magnetic information on the tape. This usage of "off track" probably contradicts your first paragraph. Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 19:54

Off on a tangent implies exactly what it states whereas you would be ON a tangent. Off tangent would imply any point not located on the tangent of origin and therefore indirectly states that you were on a given tangent to begin with. I have no examples from external sources to support this perspective however I may be able to explain. Where the circle is representative of a given topic the point where the tangent touches the circle would be one idea directly linked to the given topic as it lies on the circumference of the circle thus being on that particular tangent would be any point that supports that particular tangent thus any point that did not lie on the tangent would have no linear relation to the point where the tangent touched the circle therefore it may be independently related to the original topic by some other means or variables but not related to the idea being extrapolated upon by that particular tangent. In short being on a tangent simply indicates you would be trying to prove via the use of many points along the same line to prove that idea as being valid to the topic. Whereas if one were off tangent that point would not lie on the same line and would provide no proofs of relation to the topic through that idea. This however does not disregard that points validity to the topic itself it simply wouldn't be related to the topic through the idea being conveyed by the tangent.

  • The OP is asking whether an English usage is correct--not for a mathematical explanation. Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 21:17

The phrase should be "taking off on a tangent" and not "being off tangent". The concept is similar to " thinking outside the box". The difference is the intensity and departure. Mathematically, a tangent has only got point contact with the circle and leaves the circle bi directionally into an undefined space. In literal sense one who "takes off on a tangent" simply chooses to venture into the unknown.

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