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In most cases 'where' seems to be substituting for a prepositional phrase. As in: -

Where do you live? / I live in Brighton.

Where does the train stop? / It stops at Reading and Bristol.

So why is it seemingly okay to say 'Where are you going to?' as well as 'Where are you going?'.

Is the former actually correct? And if it is correct, is it something to do with asserting the preposition 'to' because the listener may otherwise assume 'in' or 'at' as default?

And now I come to think of it why do we say 'Where do you come from?' as opposed to 'Where do you come?'? In this case 'where' is substituting for a noun with no preposition which kind of messes up my theory and my mind at the same time!

Please help - I don't know where my head is at!!!!

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  • Erm... I think it's called established idiomatic usage. Do you want explanations for why all of these usages arise? A single explanation that covers the general case? – FumbleFingers Jul 28 '14 at 22:55
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    @FumbleFingers I agree, but I think there may be a distinction in meaning between 'Where are you going?' and where are you going to?' which explains why we use both. 'Going' which is progressive is fundamentally different to 'living' which is static. Because of the progressive nature of 'going', one needs a distinction between general direction and specific end point. – WS2 Jul 28 '14 at 23:07
  • @FumbleFingers I was just wondering whether there is a clever explanation for the fact that where usually acts an interrogative for a prep+NP (a prepositional phrase) but in some instances it just substitutes for a NP without the preposition. – thecrease Jul 28 '14 at 23:15
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    @WS2, Like normally you would just say "Where are you going?" but if you're on a train with other people going the same direction you might say "Where are you going to?", i.e. "What's your final destination?" That sounds right to me. – developerwjk Jul 28 '14 at 23:21
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    @developerwjk, WS2: I think it might be slightly "overanalysing" to say there's a distinction in meaning as such. It seems to me it's just that going has two relevant meanings itself (leaving, and travelling [towards]) optionally, we can include the preposition to to force the second interpretation, but usually we don't bother because context makes it obvious (you're not leaving the train when you say you're going to some destination). – FumbleFingers Jul 28 '14 at 23:27
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I suspect that this is partly related to the demise of the now-archaic whence, hence, thence, whither, hither, and thither, analogous to where, here, and there.

With "going" and "coming" the verb conveys a certain sense of direction, but other verbs don't necessarily. For example, "where are you walking" could be answered "I am walking in the park" or "I am walking to the store." To make the question unambiguous in the second case, we can ask "where are you walking to?".

"Where are you going," however, could not be answered "I am going in the park" -- at least not in modern idiomatic English. The "to" in "where are you going" is implicit in the meaning of the verb.

Another distinction between "where are you going" and "where are you living" is that one has a sense of motion while the other a sense of place. In some languages, verbs that can have either sense (like "walk") take a different grammatical case or -- as in English "walk in" vs. "walk to" -- a different preposition to convey this.

If we go back a bit in time, the following questions are unambiguous:

  • Whence are you walking? (= where are you walking from?)
  • Whither are you walking? (= where are you walking to?)
  • Where are you walking? (= what place are you walking in?)

Similarly:

  • He walked hence (= he walked from here)
  • He walked hither (= he walked to here)
  • He walked here (= he walked in this place)

And:

  • He walked thence (= he walked to there)
  • He walked thither (= he walked from there)
  • He walked there (= he walked in that place)

As the we lost the direction-indicating -ence and -ither words, we compensated by using prepositions with our verbs. We just seem to have done it somewhat inconsistently.

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  • This was my first thought as a native German speaker. – Carsten S Nov 20 '16 at 18:31
  • @CarstenS this is certainly something in English that I didn't really understand until I started to study German and learned about wohin and woher. – phoog Nov 20 '16 at 19:37
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As FumbleFingers's initial comment proposes, I think that what we have here is simply an idiomatic expression—one that goes back more than 200 years. From a 1799 translation of August von Kotzebue, The Corsicans, serialized in The Lady's Magazine or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex (June 1800):

Natalia. Where is he going to?

Rose. O! I do not know— the world is wide enough to be sure.

From an 1800 translation of August von Kotzebue, The Wild Youth:

Frederick. Who are they? what are their names? where are they going to? how long will they stay here?

From Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates (March 3, 1825):

It was imputed, that this text [the 68th psalm, verse 28] was used as a sign by the Orangemen, when the fact was, all that Orangemen had to do with the 68th psalm was the question, " Where do you come from, and where are you going to?" and the answer, " I am going to the high hill of Bashan."

Interestingly, this excerpt from Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates contains one of the earliest instances in Google Books of "Where are you coming from?" too.

On the other hand, criticism of the expression goes back a fairly long way, too. From C. C. Long, *Lessons in English: Grammar and Composition* (1890):

Avoid the use of unnecessary words and phrases. ... We frequently hear such expressions as "I have got it," "Where is he going to?" "Where is my book at?" when "I have it," "Where is he going?" "Where is my book" are meant.

Perhaps what makes "Where are you going to?" sound a bit awkward to some listeners is the fact that it competes with the one-word-shorter "Where are you going?" in common parlance.

In contrast, no one is likely to challenge the phrase "Where are you coming from?"—in part because it doesn't have to fend off an idiomatic challenge in normal English from "Where are you coming?" But nothing inherent in the notions of going and coming makes one of them more directed than the other; that is, just as you can come from ("I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee") or come to ("I come to you from another world") someplace, you can go to ("go to the devil, why don't you?") or go from ("where do we go from here?") someplace.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if the rise of "Where are you going to?" turned out to be linked to the rise of the allied "Where are you coming from?" (as in the Cobbett example above), but I have no persuasive data on that point.

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I'm not sure, but I think there is an implied "is it" in the phrase, so you are actually saying, "where (is it) you are going?" I also think that the terminal 'to' is incorrect, although often used.

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