Are You Based in Meaning

By | May 27, 2022

A few years ago, I ran an episode about how I was hearing a lot of speakers saying “based off” instead of “based on.” The cheerful example I used was “I believe we’re all doomed based
what I saw last night,” instead of “I believe we’re all doomed based
what I saw last night.” In that episode, I said that the usage really took off in the 1990s, although “based on” is still in the majority. Well, now I have some further information about “based off
and an interesting parallel with another construction involving the word “based.”

‘Based On’ Versus ‘Based Off’

First, some more-specific numbers for “based on.” A 2013 post by Anne Curzan in the “Chronicle of Higher Education” Lingua Franca blog compared “based on” with “based off of” in the Google Ngram viewer, and found that in the year 2000, “based on” outnumbered “based off of” by a ratio of 100,000 to 1, but that by 2008, the ratio had decreased to just 10,000 to 1. A search in the Corpus of Contemporary English (also called COCA) has different numbers, but the same trend: In the early 1990s, “based on” outnumbered “based off” by almost 13,000 to 1, but in the years from 2010 through 2015, it lost ground and outnumbered “based off” by only about 1,000 to 1. So just as I said in the earlier episode, “based off” is gaining on “based on” but is still very much in the minority. 

‘Based In’ Versus ‘Based Out Of’

It also turns out that “based off” is not the only new variation of a construction involving “based.” In fact, there’s an older variation whose trajectory “based off” seems to be following. It’s the phrase “based out of,” which has been edging into the territory of “based in.” For example, a sentence like “Grammar Girl is based
Reno, Nevada,” might be phrased by some speakers as “Grammar Girl is based
out of
Reno, Nevada.” COCA has the ratio of “based in” to “based out of” at about 230 to 1 in the first decade of this century, but since 2010, “based out of” has been gaining ground. The ratio of “based in” to “based out of” is now only around 100 to 1.

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Useful as COCA is, this corpus only goes back to 1990. To look further back, you need a different corpus, and here the Google Ngram viewer comes in handy again. If you search it for “based out of,”
you’ll see that this expression has the same slow start that we get with “based off of,” then the same steep rise, but instead of starting in the 1990s, it started in the 1960s! Like “based off of,” “based out of” has continued to rise in usage, but with its head start,
based out of” is much more frequent than “based off of” these days. If you search Google Ngrams for both expressions, you can see their lines on the graph, following the same basic path, but separated like two lines on a contour map.

Google Ngram of based off versus based out

So why did “based in” and “based on” develop these “based out of” and “based off of” variants? The earliest uses of “based out of” suggest a situation like this one, described on the website “Stack Exchange: English Language & Usage,” where visitors ask and answer questions about English grammar and usage. In response to one question about “based out of,” a user called phenry writes:

“Based out of” often suggests that the subject maintains a headquarters or home office in the given location, but spends a majority or other significant amount of time working in other locations; “based in” suggests that the subject works in the given location most of the time.

Another user, named KeithS,
points out that this can often be the case with military units. He writes:

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“‘Based out of’ is a common term to refer to the home base of a military unit: the 101st Airborne is ‘based out of’ Fort Campbell, Kentucky, but they’re currently getting it done in Afghanistan. We don’t usually say ‘based in,’ because unfortunately, soldiers don’t get to wake up in bed next to their spouses, have a nice breakfast and then commute to war.”

Since then, newer speakers may have simply generalized that “based out of” was the way to go, without considering the nuances of how much time a person or company spends at their base.

Or maybe something larger is going on. Ever since the publication of the book “Metaphors We Live By,” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in 1980, it has been recognized more and more that language is built to a staggering extent on metaphors that we don’t even realize are metaphors anymore. Using the word “based” makes use of what Lakoff and Johnson call an orientational metaphor. When we say “based on” or “based in,”
we’re thinking of a base as a place of centrality. But if you think of a base instead as a starting point from which you can explore new directions, then saying “based off” and “based out of” could be just a reflection of this shifted metaphor.

Be careful, though. “Based out of” is still the minority variant, and a third Stack Exchange user offers a cautionary tale when dealing with world Englishes. Michael described a situation in which foreign readers thought that when a report said a company was based
of a country, that it meant outside of the country, as in “not in that country,” and the readers made decisions based on that misunderstanding that led to them having to pay millions of dollars in US taxes. Ouch!

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Google Ngram showing based on is still the most common form

So for now, “based on” and “based in” are still the safer and preferred variants. I’m curious, though: If we’re seeing a new metaphor shift taking place, then we can predict that speakers who prefer “based off” will also prefer “based out of,” and vice versa. Speakers who like both “based off” and “based in,” or both “based on” and “based out of,” should be rare. Which forms do you prefer? Do you tend to use “based” as a metaphor of centrality, or as a metaphor of reaching out from the center?

This article was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs at You can also find him on Twitter as @LiteralMinded.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Are You Based in Meaning