Off to university

In English, it is the little words that cause the problems. Big words – like “misappropriation” or “truthfulness” – are easy. If you do not understand what they mean, you can look them up in a dictionary. But little words – like “up”, “down”, “on” and “off” – are difficult because they have so many possible meanings. We often join these little words to a verb, to make a phrasal verb. There are hundreds of phrasal verbs in English. In spoken English, we use phrasal verbs all the time.

Today, we look at the little word “off”. If I say, “I am going off to work ” it means that I am leaving home to go to work. Very often we leave out the verb “go”, and we say simply, “I am off to work”, or “We are off to Paris at the weekend”, or “He is off to visit his mother”. And if I say “I am off work”, it means that I am not at work; perhaps I am ill, or I am taking a day’s holiday. “A day off” means a day when I do not have to go to work. So you see, “off” can have the meaning “going away from somewhere”, or “not being at the place where I normally am”. There is a quiz on the website about sentences and expressions using the word “off”.

So now you will understand exactly what I mean when I say that my son is “off to University”. He has left home to go to University. About 40% of young people in England go to University, generally when they are 18 or 19 years old. Some young people stay at home and go to a University in their own town. But most want to be off – they want to leave home and go to a University where they can live independently. If they want to get as far away from their parents as possible, they choose a University like Exeter in the far south-west of England or Aberdeen in Scotland.


University academic year starts at the end of September or the beginning of October. On the motorways, you can see cars loaded with personal possessions, computers, stereos, skateboards and bicycles and other things which a young student needs. In the car are Mum and Dad, and their son or daughter who is off to University in a distant part of the country.

When they arrive at the University, they find hundreds of similar families. All the car parks are full, and it takes half an hour to find a parking space. Probably the University has arranged a room for the new student in a Hall of Residence. So Mum and Dad and the new student set off to find the right room, and then to find the key to the room, and finally to carry all the student’s possessions from the car to the room. Then comes the difficult bit. Mum and Dad want to stay. They want to help their son or daughter to unpack; they want to meet other parents of new students; they want to explore the University. But the new student has other ideas. He or she wants the parents to go as soon as possible. University life cannot start while Mum and Dad are still there.

So Mum and Dad set off for home. The new student starts a new life of making new friends, going to student parties and (from time to time) going to lectures and doing some work. And Mum and Dad worry about whether the new student is all right – will he eat too much junk food? will he phone home sometimes to say that all is well? will he remember to change his socks? (The answers to these three questions are “yes”, “no” and “sometimes”).

Going off to University is an important step in a young person’s life. It marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood.

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Off to university