Signing off on pesky usage

March 15, 2000|By Jan Freeman

THOSE PESKY little tails that form our phrasal verbs -- help out, back up, roll over -- can cause no end of trouble, if trouble's what you're looking for. They trigger people's redundancy alarms, resulting in headlines like "Public servants step to the plate" -- yes, it's real -- instead of the idiomatic step up to. They can masquerade as prepositions, sowing grammatical confusion among those who don't want to end their sentences with you-know-what.

Now comes sign off on, with a brand-new strategy for confusing us. "In the good old days," writes Robert Skole of Boston, "sign off indicated the end of a radio program." Now, there's a new usage: "Kennedy personally signed off on the Hilsman cable," Boston Redevelopment Authority officials signed off on an insider condo deal.

"Did the BRA hacks sign and approve the deal? Did President Kennedy personally sign and approve the cable? Or did they do the opposite?" asks Mr. Skole. "Did they say `I'm not getting involved -- I'm signing off'?"

He isn't just picking nits here. In fact, sign off on has had two shades of meaning -- to rubber-stamp an order and to accept ultimate responsibility for it -- during most of its short life. In the 1970s and '80s, both senses are current: "You wouldn't believe the kinds of things I have to sign off on," laments a Washington bureaucrat about the trivial paperwork on his desk; but "I now forbid submission of legislation -- unless my office signs off on it," says a state governor, plainly meaning "the buck stops here."

Paul Dickson, in the 1990 edition of his "Slang," defines it as "To sign or initial; to pass along. To approve something without assuming responsibility for it; to not disagree with higher authority." But the "take final responsibility" meaning is in continuous use as well.

But in the 1990s, the balance shifts. Sign off on makes it into a dictionary, the American Heritage third edition (1992), as "Informal: to express approval formally or conclusively." Oxford's Concise English Dictionary (1999) also admits it, with the label "US informal."

It's not obvious why sign off on should be labeled informal, when sign over, sign away, sign on to, sign out, and other kin are treated as standard. Probably it's just a matter of time, and the newbie will be accepted. And yes, we could just say approve. But approval is abstract, while sign off on, even if it's used figuratively, suggests the flourish of a pen and a signature in ink. That's why we love our Germanic verbs, with their natural talent for two-part and three-part inventions.

Jan Freeman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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