A high school English classroom, that bastion of standard usage and hackneyed “man versus nature” hermeneutics, is not often confused with a cutting edge research institute. And yet, in my fifteen years of high school English teaching, I have felt myself to be at the cutting edge, privy to some of the freshest phenomena in language. At the moment, the most interesting of these phenomena has been the gradual replacement of the term “based on” by “based off of” or “based off” in not only student speech, but in student writing as well. The first few times I heard or read this new usage at the beginning of the new millennium, I figured these particular students had merely misremembered the common turn of phrase, not in itself very unusual. However, as I encountered the new usage more and more I realized that it could not be dismissed as some mysterious and semi-annoying anomaly. Though I still, like any self-respecting English teacher, correct this “nonstandard” diction in essays, I have come to believe that I am witnessing a moment in the evolution of language, an evolution that could, in the not so distant future, render “based on” an archaic and nonstandard form of “based off of.” I have also come to believe that this change is a symptom of a more fundamental shift or reorientation of consciousness, as grandiose as that might sound. As some of you may know, I am not alone in considering changes in language indicative of changes in consciousness. Owen Barfield and Jean Gebser, among others, have shown with iconoclastic brilliance the fruitfulness of this line of research. Much if not all of what I will say in this essay is based on and based off of to their work.
Notice that I didn’t say based on or based off of their work because I don’t consider “based off of” just another way of saying “based on,” which is to say, I don’t see them as synonyms. For instance, when my students declare that their work is “based off of” a particular source, my sense is that they are implying a relationship between themselves and the source that is different from the one that others imply when they use “based on.” The traditionalist might lament that the first usage displays a troubling infidelity, as though the writer employs the source simply as a springboard into freer and more promising waters. Such a writer does not sufficiently acknowledge the debt owed the source. Like a wayward jazz soloist, perhaps, such a writer improvises too far towards newness, a newness which the adherents to “based on” would find much too associative, centrifugal, and incidental.
Though I am not a traditionalist, I understand the fear of the traditionalist: he or she doesn’t wish to see centuries of meticulous and responsible scholarship implied in the words “based on” superceded by a couple decades of shoddy student scholarship implied in the words “based off of.” Such a fear, however, blinds us to the potential benefits of this shift in usage/consciousness. Rather than seeing this shift as an inevitable minus mutation, to use one of Gebser’s terms, we could see it as a plus mutation, another one of Gebser’s terms. The minus mutation, as Gebser characterizes it, occurs when one trait replaces another: “B” replaces “A” or “based off of” replaces “based on.” A plus mutation, on the other hand, leads to a complexification, not “B” replacing “A,” but “B” in addition to “A,” “based off of” in addition to “based on.” Obviously, seeing by itself does not make something so. Therefore, for us to make sure this particular shift in usage/consciousness is a plus mutation, I don’t think we can just let it happen to us; rather, we need to be more active in making sure we don’t lose varieties and subtleties of consciousness within it’s unfolding.
In the work of such 20th Century philosophers as Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer, there is the understanding that our non-dualistic, direct, and unmediated experience of reality has the quality of both a discovery and a creation. These two aspects of experience are distinct, but not separable, like a wave and its medium. If one were able to distinguish an experience of reality that had more the quality of discovery from one that had more the quality of creation, one might get the sense of how I see an important difference between “based on” and “based off of.” With “based on,” the percipient (the one who experiences) brings less to the reality moment, so to speak, whereas with “based off of,” the individual creativity of the percipient is more involved, in a way that’s not necessarily simply subjective, in constituting reality.
My feeling is that “based on” has been a usage and habit of consciousness more in service of the status quo and has therefore tended to add epicycles and eccentrics to that status quo rather than overturn it. It is also my feeling that my students’ use of “based off of” heralds some sort of “sun-centered” reorientation, not in a spatial sense, that is, of representing an outward reality differently, but in a more ontological one. What I mean by this is that when my students use “based off of,” they seem to be both more individual and less individual than the preceding “based on” generations. They are more individual in how they use a source more as a catalyst for their own personal work and less individual (from a “based on” perspective) in how they seem less attached to the products of their creativity. Therefore, they don’t mind subsequent work being “based off of” their work; in fact, I would venture that they would be more uncomfortable with others’ work being “based on” theirs. I suspect that the hierarchical world implied by “based on” is becoming more and more uncomfortable or problematical for them.
As a teacher, I feel it’s my role to ground my students in all that is best of the thinking revealed in “based on,” and yet, at the same time, facilitate a conscious engagement with and development of that thinking revealed in “based off of.” Nothing less than this twofold approach – and hopefully something much, much more – will do justice to the new structures of consciousness that are appearing in and being created by each one of us.