Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I’m Tired of Taking Clothes On and Off

Posted by Neal on July 31, 2018

My wife needed to buy a black suit, and spent most of the day Sunday doing it. After visiting about a dozen stores and logging 10,000 steps on her pedometer, she finally found what she needed. I haven’t seen it yet, though. At home last night, I asked if she was going to model it for Adam and me. She said,

I’m tired of taking clothes on and off.

Taking clothes on and off?

I know she can take clothes off; I’ve seen her do it. But I don’t think I’ve seen her or anyone else take clothes on. They’ve only put them on. Or maybe thrown them on if they were in a hurry. (The people were in a hurry, not the clothes.) What my wife must have meant was she was tired of putting clothes on and taking them off. So was this simply a production error after a long day of shopping? I don’t think so.

First of all, she judged all of the following to be ungrammatical, while standing by her original utterance:

  • *I’m tired of taking clothes off and on.
  • *I’m tired of putting clothes off and on.
  • *I’m tired of putting clothes on and off.
  • Second, the corpus data favors the phrasing she used. First, I searched COCA for any form of take followed by any word and then “off and on” (search term “TAKE_vv* * off and on” if you’re interested). I got only five hits, and of them only two were relevant:

    TAKE_vv* * off and on

  • you don’t have the labor problems of taking covers off and on
  • it’s, you know, hard getting on the ladder, taking them off and on
  • (The irrelevant hits had off and on as a verb phrase modifier meaning “occasionally” (taking Pilates off and on), or just near each other by accident (takes Fridays off and on weekends gets….)

    On the other hand, when I did the same search with on and off (“TAKE_vv* * on and off”), I got nine hits, and of them five were true examples what I was looking for. The last one in the list even has on and off taking an object: windrows (which I’ve learned from Dictionary.com are “long line[s] of raked hay or sheaves of grain laid out to dry in the wind”).

    TAKE_vv* * on and off

  • The youngster fidgets with an unusual looking pair of sunglasses, taking them on and off.
  • In fact, you had to take them on and off, and stroke them several times, right?
  • If I wear it here, I have to take it on and off all the time.
  • hadn’t developed a mechanical method to take covers on and off.
  • you’re buying covers and taking them on and off windrows for a year or five years,
  • Then I did the same two searches with the verb put. For put [something] off and on (“PUT_vv* * off and on”), I got nothing at all. For put [something] on and off (“PUT_vv* * on and ff”), I only got one hit, with on and off taking an object:

    PUT_vv* * on and off

  • she was able to put herself on and off her ventilator
  • Because I got so few results on COCA, I took my search to Brigham Young University’s iWeb corpus. With 14 billion words instead of 520 million, I got enough more hits that I wasn’t going to try to look through them to find the true positives, but the pattern seems to hold. take [something] on and off (758 hits) still wins over take [something] off and on (187 hits), and over either order with put (231 hits for on and off; a mere 6 for off and on). Here is a relevant hit of each type that I found:

  • with an adjustable wide quick-strap closure so you can easily take them on and off.
  • The kids goggles will stay put and taking them off and on will result in less complaining from the little ones.
  • I like the fancy straps for putting them on and off.
  • they stayed on well (when he wasn’t playing at putting them off and on).
  • What does this all mean? I’m not sure I can generalize much of anything from this pair off antonyms, put on and take off. Further investigation will have to wait.

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    2 Responses to “I’m Tired of Taking Clothes On and Off”

    1. Sign me up for another person would would easily say “I’m tired of taking clothes on and off” but not the other three variants. Since reading this post, I’ve been on the lookout for more examples and caught myself saying “I don’t think we can take them in and out many more times” about the detachable fronds of some fragile fake palm trees I was trying to assemble.

    2. dainichi said

      Not really relevant, but possibly a fun fact: Using “take on” when meaning “put on” (clothes/shoes etc) is a common mistake made by Scandinavians when speaking English, since the usual expression is the literal translation of “take on” (in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish).

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