Off-Premise vs Off-Premises: Which Phrase is Correct (Does it Matter?)
Sometimes it’s important to have frank, honest discussions about pressing issues. Unfortunately, these discussions can be awkward and might dredge up painful feelings or tainted memories. Folks can get passionate, fiery, and aggressive, taking personal potshots and losing a sense of decorum. We’ve probably all seen a pleasant social interaction ruined by someone clumsily lobbing a hot topic into the fray. The discussion focuses on a rampant development within the hospitality industry, one you’ve very likely experienced over the past year. Obviously, I’m speaking about the grammatical divide between the terms “off-premise” vs. “off-premises.” (What did you think I was talking about?).
But we need these discussions; they help us to grow. Growth is painful, and so is personal change, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters…I uh…hate cliches. Whatever. Off-premise vs off-premises. Here we go!
Stuff You’ve Learned in School
Alrighty. Remember writing high school papers? State your topic thesis, “Websters defines [topic] as ______,” come up with three backing sentences and a conclusion? That’s a little lazy for an adult writer, I concede. I promise not to mimic that formula entirely, but to proceed, we must define the two terms with a definitive source. In this case, the Merriam Webster Dictionary.
Premise: a statement or idea taken to be true and on which an argument or reasoning may be based; something assumed or taken for granted.
Premises: a: a tract of land with the buildings thereon
b: a building or part of a building usually with its appurtenances (such as grounds).
The words have entirely different meanings. A premise is not tangible; it has no definite form. One might ask, “what is the premise of Star Wars?” or “I don’t agree with the premise that ‘longer hours means harder work.'”
A premises is more physical; it’s something you could (feasibly) touch, photograph or draw. A security guard might ask a group of skateboarders to leave the premises, i.e. the building or buildings they’re managing. Premises still derives from premise, though its particular definition has evolved.
Note for language enthusiasts: When you have more than one premise, you will pluralize it as premises. In context, this pluralized version of premise holds a different definition than the premises above. In fact, the term “premises” originally derives from the initially-written proposition of a deed, i.e. the various premises that compose the agreement. Confused?.
Off-Premise vs Off-Premises
As these terms relate to the restaurant and hospitality industry, off-premises is logically the “correct” definition of the two. Because the term premises refers to a physical location, off-premises dining accurately describes the process of customers ordering food, restaurants preparing it on site, and then routing it for delivery, takeout or pickup. The premises we’re describing is the restaurant’s physical location, and the customer consumes that food in another location — they’re eating off-premises. I shan’t belabor that point any further.
OK, So Why Do I Still See Folks Say “Off-Premise?”
You will find many instances of the term off-premise dining in this blog and our website. We’re aware of the distinction between the terms and can see this discussion happening more. Though we’d indeed debated the relative correctness of the two terms, we also looked at its prevalence in the industry. What terms are customers, restaurant operators, and other folks within the industry saying? Perhaps it is time to shift to using the more “correct” term rather than the common, accepted version, but hear me out.
The squirmy truth is that language, though ostensibly bound by rules, tends to “do its own thing.” Advances in technology, cultural shifts, convenience, and the simple passage of time can bend and mutate words into new forms. In the modern age, this phenomenon happens more frequently with the proliferation of internet communication, social media, text messaging, and myriad other ways for us to speak, write, tweet, and TikTok our thoughts into the ether.
Look at that last sentence. What was “tweeting” in the year 2005? Sure, the word existed, but would we have used it the same way we do now? What about TikTok, which I used as a verb. I also said “myriad,” a term that denotes “many.” Long ago, the word was a literal measurement reserved for 10,000 units of an item. An ancient Grecian restaurant operator may have ordered a myriad of napkins. Who knows? Words, and the way we use them, evolve quickly and purposefully.
Malapropisms: Not Inherently Bad
Malapropisms, the simple misuse of a word, are abundant in the English language and pop culture. Yogi Berra famously confirmed Texas’s vast number of electrical votes to George Bush. Mike Tyson once vowed to “fade [his opponent] into Bolivian . Shakespeare famously infused his work with comedic malapropisms. And while many malapropisms are one-off errors, “slips of the tongue,” occasionally they can take hold, eclipsing the correct term. Many years ago, the term awful meant full of awe (logically). We find examples of the term “awful” describing positive feelings of wonderment or majesty throughout classic literature. Over time, this definition has shifted to mean “unpleasant or off-putting” exclusively, and one would rarely use it in conjunction with beauty or splendor. In this case, the term evolved, and the new definition stuck; Now, we use the term awesome to denote a positive sense of wonderment.
The “telephone game” is a potent example of how malapropisms can happen more actively through a simple mishearing of a term and then passing it on. Sometimes sloppy grammar proliferates through consumer culture and marketing. True grammatical sticklers should bristle at Apple’s Think Different campaign or the “Got Milk?” ads, both grammatically dubious. Yet, the phrases endured. I could riff on this for hours, but the point is: language is organic. Words are born, they evolve, they’re sometimes misshapen and obscured, and sometimes they die.
The “English” Language
While many folks in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia speak “English,” we know that the “English” each speaks contains several nuances. These nuances make up what’s called a dialect. Dialects are like the varying flavors (Some might say “flavours!”) that all descend from one initial recipe. Think about how spelling, pronunciations, terminologies, grammar, and even accents can shift — the English you’d hear in Louisiana (USA) has a distinct identity from the English in Liverpool, in Sydney, and so on. Of course, this phenomenon occurs throughout all languages, not just English. Dialects tend to be regionally-bound — Of course, in the modern age, regional slang can travel much more quickly, permeating a larger culture than it could in antiquity.
Who Started Saying “Off-Premise?”
Sometimes we can trace the literal introduction of a word into the public consciousness, and sometimes words creep in. For example, the words premise and premises are similar, with only one letter — keystroke — of distinction. It’s possible to mishear or mistype the phrase very easily. One might assume that if premises refers to a group of buildings, premise might refer to a single site or building. Though this assumption would be mistaken, it’s a logical mistake that anyone could make. Inconsistencies like these run rampant through English. Why do we refer to more than one mouse as “mice” but more than one house as “houses?”
Perhaps it began when someone mistyped the word, another person copy/pasted it, and it spread forth from there. Maybe it happened with branding. Occasionally, a company can create a branded phrase that forms the mold for others of the ilk. An example is the “10 Items or Less” signs you frequently see in large retail or grocery stores. While grammatists would insist that the signs read 10 Items or Fewer to be genuinely correct, the rhetorical flub doesn’t preclude shoppers from using it or understanding it.
At this point, the term “Off-premise dining” might be just as common as “off-premises” in the vernacular. I can’t quantify that, but the “flub” occurs enough to inspire discussion. Maybe someone said “Off-Premise” once in an email; someone copied it, pasted it, and spread it from there. Perhaps a company used it in a presentation at a trade show, sealing that particular version of the word in attendee’s minds. Maybe a computer program only had room for seven digits or characters (p-r-e-m-i-s-e). Who knows?
How Can We Live with “Incorrect” Grammar?
Some find the technical incorrectness of “off-premise” a massive bother, and they’re justified in feeling that way. “Off-premise dining” is, technically, a nonsensical phrase. Technically. A line once breathlessly issued in Futurama “You are technically correct, which is the best kind of correct.” These folks feel that by perpetuating the “false” word, one might be diluting the meaning.
So while these folks aren’t wrong in their assertions, they aren’t necessarily 100% correct either; They’re technically correct (Save comments for the end, please!).
Prescriptive v. Descriptive Language
To oversimplify, linguists (those who study language) suggest various lenses through which we can examine language and communication. We’ll focus on two prominent ones. Prescriptive linguists put serious stock in the “rules” of language. When we learned grammar back in grade school, we did so under a prescriptive lens. Our teachers taught us the correct rules and where to apply them, and we received grades to measure our understanding of those rules. Prescriptivists look at slang, malapropisms, and loose grammar as “corrupted” language, areas in which users break or bend the rules. These folks tend to insist upon a “correct” way of speaking and take great umbrage with those who don’t. They may be the types to correct people in a discussion.
And to be clear, we need rules. Without some universally agreed-upon principles, we couldn’t understand one another. But we must also acknowledge that language only evolves when circumstances permit. One person cannot simply begin misappropriating a word and hope for it to catch on. Numerous events facilitate these phenomena. Chiefly among these circumstances are that despite the word’s changing, folks should still be able to understand it. This distinction leads us to the opposite side of the linguistics coin.
Descriptive linguists describe language “as it is” rather than “as it should be.” A descriptive linguist can acknowledge that terms and phrases might not follow the traditional grammar “rules,” but they more closely resemble the way people speak. Descriptive linguists posit that slang words, or corrupted words, reveal profound truths about cultures and the folks and circumstances that create them. Moreover, descriptive linguists tend to quibble less with folks using “correct” language and more in understanding why folks speak the way they do. If you want to think of these linguists as salt and pepper on the proverbial grammatical steak, you can. There’s room for both!
On “Grammar Police”
We need good grammar. We need editors and English teachers, and friends to let us know when our Facebook posts are too rambly. But to the folks who aren’t editors, professors, or writers, those who wrote a few papers in college internalized the various applications of “there,” “their,” and “they’re” and built a personality over smugly correcting grammatical slips without solicitation— we need them far less.
Sometimes it’s important to fix folks’ grammar, and in those instances, you can do so kindly to raise one’s awareness. You needn’t be unpleasant or condescending, though. ‘Tis just grammar! No one appreciates it, and I’m not the first person to posit that those who fixate on grammar often obscure their inability to engage with the topic’s more significant implication. It’s all about optics sometimes.
Off-Premise vs. Off-Premises and the Future
Those who feel their skin crawl when reading or hearing “off-premise” collectively wonder if we can turn the ship around to sail toward grammatically sound shores. Others might be a bit more skeptical — it’s pretty easy to work a new word into your vocabulary. It’s a bit harder to remove it. So do we, folks in the restaurant and hospitality industry, have an obligation to “fix” this mistake? Do we owe it to our peers to correct them when they misuse the term? Or are we splitting irrelevant hairs? I’m sincerely asking.
Then, others don’t know the difference between the terms or (whispers) don’t care. We need all of you in this discussion, though. We welcome it. Just, you know, be cool about it.
If you dig scintillating conversation about restaurant-centric wordplay, check out our article on restaurant terms and slang.
About the Author
Dylan Chadwick is the Content Marketing Manager at QSR Automations. He graduated from Brigham Young University with an English degree and blah bla blah. He thinks you’re a giant poseur if you don’t listen to Ronnie James Dio-era Black Sabbath.