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Ships loaded with oil churn through the fisheries off Scandinavia.

I have two editions of reading of this sentence. One is that the ships churn through the fisheries while leaving/departing from Scandinavia, with off meaning to be away from a place.

The other meaning of off is at a distance in space or time, like, an island off the coast of Spain, which is trying to say that the island is near the coast of Spain. In the original sentence, I assume that instead of modifying the ships,off modifies the fisheries. That is, the fisheries off Scandinavia, and the meaning of it would be the fisheries that is near the Scandinavia.

Though these two editions have different meanings, they are both respectively logical to me. So which one is true? Are there any ways for an English learner to distinguish off's meaning clearly?

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  • Your first interpretation is completely mistaken. Those tankers could churn through the fisheries off (away, but not too far away from) Scandinavia even if the tankers never go to or leave Scandinavia. That's to say, off there has nothing to do with coming and/or going - it's only about "being [relatively] near". Apr 16, 2022 at 15:58
  • @FumbleFingers I just couldn't tell which interpretation is correct as an English learner. Are there any indicators that can help you identify which meaning "off" is suggesting here or are you just judging from the context? Apr 17, 2022 at 6:44
  • Preposition off has a wide range of meanings - and that's not to mention non-preposition usages such as off = incorrect, mouldy, rude,.... I can tell you that in #1 He got off the bus, the implication is movement [away from the bus], but there's not really much implication of "movement" in #2 The bus stop is in a side street off the main road. Thinking about it though, most of us probably wouldn't use off in #2 there unless there was a reasonably "direct" way to get from the main road to that side street (on foot OR in a vehicle, according to context)... Apr 17, 2022 at 16:31
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    ...so perhaps I should say that X is [just] off Y implies either actually going from Y to X, OR at least that it should be reasonably easy to get from Y to X. But I don't know if that helps you understand the exact specific intended sense in your own example above. Perhaps the key to it is recognising that if the verb is [TO BE], off probably alludes to (potentially static, but nearby) position / location, whereas with other verbs like go off, get off, walk off, there's implied movement away from somewhere. Apr 17, 2022 at 16:35

1 Answer 1

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According to the Cambridge dictionary, off can mean away from [a place] as a preposition or an adverb.

He drove off without saying goodbye -adverb
We are not far off London now. - preposition

The adverbial meaning relates to movement and does not have an object. The prepositional meaning relates to location, and does have an object. We can therefore say that "off Scandinavia" means "located away from Scandinavia".

Note that there are prepositional meanings of off that relate to movement, but they are about movement away from a mode of transport, not from a place.

You need to get off the train at Watford
He fell off his bike

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  • So, with "churn" expressing movement, off could only be followed by a transport to convey the meaning of leaving. Therefore, off in this sentence means fisheries are at a distance from Scandinavia, is it right? Apr 16, 2022 at 4:36
  • @wonderfulwonder churning means moving violently: in this case, moving the water around the ships. You can't really churn a ship, nor can you churn water off something.
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 16, 2022 at 5:55
  • I think that in this case off can be understood as off the coast of - that is, in the seas surrounding Scandinavia. Apr 16, 2022 at 7:09
  • I would perhaps mention that, especially in a nautical or shipping context, 'off' usually means 'at a distance [from]'. If I sail along the English Channel, at one point I may be five miles off Calais, without having come from there (Calais is five miles off on one side of my vessel). Apr 16, 2022 at 7:25

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