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Suppose one has washed some vegetables and we want to tell him separate the water (liquid part) from the vegetables (solid part).

Which ones of the following sentences are correct?

1 Strain off the vegetables, please.

2 Strain off the water, please.

3 Strain the vegetables, please.

4 Strain the water, please.


I have seen this example in Longman Dictionary:

She strained the pasta.

and these in Cambridge Dictionary:

When the potatoes were cooked, she strained off the water.

Could you strain the vegetables, please.

The oil in which the fish is fried is strained off and used to cook potatoes.

Based on these examples I can say that the object of "strain" without "off" should be the solid part and the object of "strain off" should be the liquid part. Therefore I can say the examples #2 and #3 are correct.

But can I also use them vice versa? What about examples #1 and #4?

I am not sure whether they are just some random examples or deliberately chosen to signify that for the liquid part we should use "off" and it is wrong to omit it in this case.

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  • 3
    I wouldn't use the word strain at all if someone has been washing vegetables, because strain implies something like pouring a mixture of water and something else, like rice or pasta, through a filter. I would just say "drain the vegetables" or "dry the vegetables".
    – stangdon
    Oct 28, 2022 at 20:52

4 Answers 4

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In a nutshell, the act of straining separates solid from liquid, regardless of whether we want to keep either, both or neither.

The object of "strain" (without "off") is the combination of the solid and liquid.

Most often, we refer to the combination of solid and liquid with just the name of the solid because the liquid is not considered valuable enough to mention. Like when we "strain pasta", there's also water in the pot, but since it's worthless once the cooking is done, we refer to the pot containing both pasta and water as simply "the pasta". It's in this sense that we "strain the pasta", which really means "strain the combination of the pasta and the water".

The meaning of "strain off" is the same as "strain", but it focuses on the liquid to be removed. The object of "strain off" can be either the combination of the solid and the liquid, or just the liquid.

So, to your examples, 1, 2 and 3 are definitely correct, and maybe 4 as well. Sentence 2 and 3 you've correctly figured out already. 1 is also correct because in that context, "vegetables" refers to "the combination of vegetables and liquid", which is a valid object of "strain", and we understand from the context that there's water to be strained off.

In sentence 4, if the water is valuable (odd, but possible), then it means to remove the solid from the water.

Also, if there's vegetables cooking, someone could point at them and say, "strain the water". Technically this isn't correct, but it would be clearly understood to mean "strain off the water", and might not be considered a mistake.

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  • Can the sentence #4 suggest that the valuable part is water? For example, maybe we cook chicken in water and after that you want to use its water to cook soup. Then is it appropriate to say "strain the water"? Or when we want to make juice may one say "strain the liquid and discard the solid part." or "strain off the solid part and discard it"??
    – alireza
    Oct 29, 2022 at 7:30
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    To me, strain the water suggests cleaning the water by straining off unwanted solids. Oct 29, 2022 at 8:42
  • @alireza Yes it could. I've updated the last part of my answer
    – gotube
    Oct 29, 2022 at 11:51
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    if you "strain a broth" you probably remove unwanted particles from it.
    – Esther
    Oct 30, 2022 at 3:35
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    @alireza Yep, that works
    – gotube
    Nov 12, 2022 at 7:38
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We would normally use the plural - vegetables - and say,

Strain the vegetables, please.

This seems to reflect the original meaning of the verb.

But as 'off' generally suggests the removal of some unwanted part, it might (as you suggest) be used in 'strain off the water,' but its use in 'strain off the vegetables' seems redundant.

When making a fruit liqueur it is the liquid we are interested in. A recipe might say, 'strain the fruit over a bowl' or 'strain the fruit, reserving the liquor'.

This Ngram suggests we usually strain things without an 'off'. It finds no examples of 'strain off the potatoes'. (This one might be clearer.)

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  • Right, to strain the vegetables with a strainer. Then, afterwards, we'd say: Oh look, he's strained [the water] off [the vegetables]. So, the off is almost a residual preposition.
    – Lambie
    Oct 28, 2022 at 19:50
  • @Lambie Looks that way. Otherwise it's a wretched redundancy. Oct 29, 2022 at 5:11
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We often use 'off' after a verb when we remove something. Scrape off dirt, skim off fat from, strain off water or oil, cut off fat.

Something liquid which is strained off is discarded or put aside.

Something strained is kept.

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  • So the example of the Cambridge dictionary [dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/strain] "The oil in which the fish is fried is strained off and used to cook potatoes." is wrong?
    – alireza
    Oct 28, 2022 at 18:43
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    @alireza Michael says, "Something strained off is ... put aside". In that case with the fish oil, the oil is put aside, so it's correct.
    – gotube
    Oct 28, 2022 at 19:11
  • Someone should say about all this: to use a strainer. You strain the water off [the vegetables] with a strainer. That's where the off comes from. The idea is that they were covered with water. Well, straining can also involved filters: they strained off the organic bits from the liquid.
    – Lambie
    Oct 28, 2022 at 19:55
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    Generally, we strain something. When we refer to what was removed, we use off. Did you strain the vegetables? Yes, I did. BUT: Did you strain off the water? Yes, I did. Same idea. Yes, you pour the water down the sink, but have to hold a plate or pot top against the thing being strained.....or use a strainer.
    – Lambie
    Oct 28, 2022 at 20:33
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    @alireza - sometimes we use 'reserve' when we wish to keep something for later use. Oct 29, 2022 at 7:58
1

The following sound good to this UK speaker...

  1. Strain the leaves off the swimming-pool.
  2. Strain off the fat.
  3. Strain the pasta.
  4. Strain the water before drinking.

In case 2 you may be keeping the fat, or you may be discarding it. Depending on the fat, you may be putting it aside to use, or so you can throw it away as a lump, rather than blocking the sink.

I do not see a firm rule, but it seems you strain off something you may or may not want, from something you want.

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