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I stated to a customer, “They can tell you where it’s at” (regarding the office location of an appointment). The customer then asked if he could correct my grammar, to which I consented. It was an older gentleman; he was simply being talkative, so I didn’t mind. He said, “You do not have to say ‘at.’ You can say, ‘They can tell you where it is.’”

Was my statement grammatically acceptable?

closed as primarily opinion-based by FumbleFingers, Helmar, jimm101, Drew, curiousdannii Oct 12 '16 at 7:19

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Sadly, I can see this developing into another bunfight. Until we have a body legislating on what is correct in English, there will always be border disputes. And if such a body appears, there will be civil war. If you'd asked 'Do you like the usage?' – well, obviously the customer didn't (but I won't make the obvious remark). – Edwin Ashworth Oct 11 '16 at 19:14
  • I think this is essentially the same question as Can you grammatically end a sentence with “with”?, but I hesitate to cite that in a duplicate closevote, so I'll just say "Matter of Opinion". – FumbleFingers Oct 11 '16 at 19:25
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    Where it is and Where it's at does not necessarily mean the same. However, there is no context. – Helmar Oct 11 '16 at 20:10
  • Perhaps this question would be better at ell.stackexchange.com? – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Oct 11 '16 at 22:33
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    Correctness/incorrectess aside, "where it's at" is *generally* very informal, and should probably not be used in professional or academic settings. This includes using it with customers. – SeldomNeedy Oct 11 '16 at 23:35
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Yes, your statement was perfectly grammatical.

Your customer is correct that you don’t have to say ‘at’: “where it is” is every bit as acceptable as—and in some circumstances more acceptable than—“where it’s at”, but “where it’s at” is not ungrammatical as such.

Where is usually (or perhaps I should rather say traditionally) labelled a relative adverb in this usage. It’s not really an adverb in the narrower sense of the verb (it doesn’t directly modify the verb in a clause); it is in many ways more akin to a relative pronoun, especially in that it always has an antecedent, whether explicit or not. This antecedent is essentially a prepositional phrase of some kind, with the object of the preposition being the place that functions as the ‘actual’ antecedent; if there is no explicit place in the main clause, we assume a generic antecedent like “place” or something like that.

In other words, you can usually replace where in a relative clause with a prepositional phrase: “in which [place]”, “at which [place]”, “to which [place]”, etc. Or, since we’re talking about relative clauses here, “that/what … in/at/to/etc.”. Compare:

This is the school where my kids go // This is the school that my kids go to.
This is the house where/in which I live // This is the house that I live in.
That is the college where/at which I trained // That is the college that I trained at.

In all these cases, where by itself (without the preposition) carries the meaning of the entire prepositional phrase.

Since we always have the corresponding ‘full’ phrase somewhere in the back of our heads, however, and know that underlyingly we’re talking about ‘going to school’, ‘living in a house’, and ‘training at college’, we sometimes add the preposition anyway. Essentially, the only thing this changes is that where then does not stand in for the entire prepositional phrase, but only for the place—it becomes entirely synonymous with that.

In some cases, this is actually necessarily if you want to specify whether you’re talking about direction or location. A taxi driver, for instance, might ask you, “Where to?” to ask you where you want him to take you, but he wouldn’t just ask “Where?”, because that might as well be asking you where you are or half a dozen other things.

In most cases, though, adding the preposition is unnecessary—and as with many things in language that are not necessary, some people have interpreted its lack of necessity as evidence that it is in fact wrong. Hence, we end up with people making outdated claims that sentences like “Where are you going to?” are ‘not grammatically correct’—which is nonsense, of course.

The preposition at is an interesting case in this connection. In general, adding the preposition is associated with spoken language and a somewhat colloquial register. But when the verb is the copula (be) and the preposition is at, there is the additional circumstance that the phrasing “where X is at” has somehow become extremely widespread (even in contexts where you would normally use in as the preposition) especially in AAVE, being used in many cases where most dialects would simply have “where X is”.

This association has done a lot to stigmatise the collocation of where and at, since AAVE is one of the dialects traditionally most severely looked down upon as uncultured and uneducated.

Going off into wild speculation, I would guess that is why your customer reacted to your use of “where it’s at”, even though in all likelihood he would not have batted an eyelid at “I can’t find the box where it’s in right now” or other similar examples.

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I'm guessing that part of his problem is ending the sentence (or clause) with a preposition. Correcting that would result in, "They can tell you at where it is." But that sounds insane. He wanted to avoid that by leaving out the "at," which could possibly change the meaning of the sentence.

But the rule against ending a sentence or phrase with a preposition is left over from Latin grammar, and I think a lot of experts think that rule is dumb and shouldn't apply to English.

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    Possibly, but the customer said, "You don't have to say at", not "You can't [or shouldn't] say at". In other words, the at is redundant. – deadrat Oct 11 '16 at 19:26
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    It almost definitely is redundant, and I would never personally use "at" in that usage, but I'm sure someone can think of some example where the "at" adds meaning to the sentence. – The Phil Lee Oct 11 '16 at 19:35
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    I'd take "Can you tell me where they're at?" as being metaphorical without any context. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 11 '16 at 19:40
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    One possible (admittedly stylized and colloquial) use is like in Rakim saying "It ain't where you from, it's where you're at." Maybe the customer asked, "Hey, what is the next big cool thing that all the kids are doing?" – The Phil Lee Oct 11 '16 at 19:41
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    I wouldn't use it either, but that's because I'm so old I remember when where it's at was slang for something like right understanding, as in Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" -- Ain’t it hard when you discover that / He really wasn’t where it’s at. – deadrat Oct 11 '16 at 19:43
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Yes, you can say, ‘They can tell you where it is.’”

If you say it this way, I think everyone will understand you, and no one will find what you said irritating.

If you say it your way, everyone will understand you, but a fair number of people will find it grating.

If you want to avoid this dilemma, you could say, 'They can help you find it.'

  • The question is whether the utterance is grammatical, not whether people will understand it, nor if someone might find it irritating or grating. – Jim Reynolds Sep 2 '18 at 13:50

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