Where Are You At?

The surprising reason people say it.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #311

where are you at mapGrammar Girl here, and today I’m going to tell you where it’s at!

Just kidding. I used the phrase “Where it’s at” in an episode a few years ago, and a listener called me on it. How embarrassing, given that I always give the same advice about phrases like “Where it’s at” or “Where are you at?,” whether it’s in a radio interview, in a podcast episode, or in a book, I always say that because phrases like “Where are you at?” and “Where are you?” mean the same thing, you should omit the “at.” I’m standing by that advice, but today we’re going to talk about>

First, I want to make one exception to my advice about “where” and “at” when it comes to the phrase “where it’s at.” By now, this particular phrase, meaning that something is really cool, is an established idiom of American English. If you take out the “at” and say something like, “Ballroom dancing is where it is,” that’s nothing but a tautology: It’s located where it’s located. But if you say “Ballroom dancing is where it’s at,” that’s something else entirely, and in a not-so-serious context, it’s acceptable. Having said that, I hereby retract my apology for using the idiom “where it’s at.”

Now let’s talk about a more typical case of “where” used with “at”: The question “Where are you at?,” which means the same thing as “Where are you?” To understand how this “at” got into the picture, we need to look at the history of “where” and its relatives in English.

Where: Location

In present-day English, the word “where” can be used in several ways. Of course, you can use it to ask about a place where something is or something happens, as in “Where are you?” or “Where do you live?” I’ll call this the “where” of location. This is the “where” that’s always redundant when you add an “at” to it.

Where: Origin

You can also use “where” to ask about an origin, in questions like, “Where are you from?” The preposition “from” isn’t redundant, because “Where are you from?” does not mean the same thing as “Where are you?” I’ll call this the “where” of origin.

Where: Destination

Furthermore, you can use “where” to ask about a destination, in questions like, “Where are you going?” I’ll call this the “where” of destination. Sometimes people will add a “to” to the end, and say, “Where are you going to?” Like “Where are you at?,” this is redundant, since “Where are you going to?” and “Where are you going?” mean the same thing.

Even so, I don’t get complaints so often about “Where are you going to?” That might be because “where to” isn’t always redundant the way “where at” is. True, it’s redundant in “Where are you going to?,” but how about in “Where are you swimming to?” That doesn’t mean the same thing as “Where are you swimming?”

“Where are you swimming to?” is asking about a destination. A possible answer might be, “To the buoy and back,” or “To Cambodia.” But “Where are you swimming?” just asks about the place where you’re doing the swimming. The answer might be, “At the pool” or “In the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean.”

English used to have three common words for “where”: “where,” “whence,” and “whither.”

Image:  Old Court Road Map, Algorerhythms at Wikimedia. CC BY 3.0 Unported.


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg school board. You can find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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