Off the coast

'Off the coast' is used to describe locations in the ocean

Today's story: Titan implosion
Explore more: Lesson #588
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Off the coast

This is going to be quick—the expression today is “off the coast of.” The “coast” is the part of land that borders the ocean. You sometimes say “coastline” to talk about the long coast in an area. Florida has a long coastline. So does California.

“Off the coast” is a way to describe where something is in the ocean. On land, we have country borders. And if you want to talk about where something is on land, you usually refer to a country name, a state, a city, a province something like that. It’s in France, it’s in Florida, it’s near São Paulo, it’s 10 miles from the border between Poland and Ukraine, whatever, like that.

But in the ocean, we don’t have a lot of ways of describing where something is. We’ve got oceans, Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Antarctic. We’ve got seas, bays, and other waterways. But one way we often describe location in the water is relative to the nearest country.

That’s what “off the coast” means. OceanGate took tourists to hydrothermal vents . Where were they? Off the coast of Portugal. They’re not in Portugal. They’re in the ocean—not part of any country. But we don’t have the vocabulary to pinpoint where it is. So we say where it is in relation to the nearest country. When I say, “off the coast of Portugal,” picture Portugal and then picture out in the ocean somewhere nearby.

But how far? I didn’t say in the lesson—but if I wanted to, here’s what I’d say. Those hydrothermal vents are about 1,300 kilometers off the coast of Portugal. The nearest coast—the nearest border between land and ocean—that’s Portugal’s coast. And so we say it’s 1,300 kilometers off the coast because it’s 1,300 kilometers away from Portugal’s coastline.

The Titan went down close to the Titanic. That’s 1,400 kilometers off the coast of Massachusetts, an American state. Now look: there are lots of states that have coastline along the North Atlantic Ocean. So this is not precise. The site is also about 1,400 kilometers off the coast of Maine, off the coast of Rhode Island, Connecticut, whatever. But the nearest, closest, most significant point is Massachusetts, which is where many of the rescue ships launched from. So it’s an important reference point. So we say that it’s off the coast of Massachusetts.

This was useful when talking about rescue ships that came from the United States. But Massachusetts is actually not the nearest landmass. We can also describe the same point as being just 600 kilometers off the coast of Newfoundland, a province of Canada. And if I were in Canada, or if were talking to people in Canada, I would say the site is 600 kilometers off the coast of Newfoundland.

But I’m talking to you—to all of you—and I’m guessing that you’re more likely to be able to picture Massachusetts than Newfoundland.

We only talk this way because we have vocabulary to describe places on land, but we don’t have that same knowledge or vocabulary to talk about places in the ocean.

You can talk about islands this way. Do you know where Guam is? Guam is an island in the Pacific Ocean; it’s a territory of the United States. It’s 2,400 kilometers off the coast of Japan. It’s also 6,100 kilometers off the coast of Hawaii. Obviously, it’s closer to Japan. But depending on how you want to describe it, you can say it’s off the coast of Japan or off the coast of Hawaii.

Quote of the Week

Today’s quote is from Alan Turing, a mathematician. The quotes I pick are so often from writers, poets, critics—they produce a lot of memorable words. But I’m glad to pull one from a mathematician. Here it is: “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” This was in 1950, in a paper about “machines that can think.”

Now we have—kind of?—machines that can think. And it’s easy to ask “what if” and think way into the future. But it’s impossible to predict too far in the future. Better to focus on what we can predict and make positive contributions to that.

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” Wise words from mathematician Alan Turing.

See you next time!

And that’s all for today’s lesson. Remember, we’ll continue this story on Thursday, when we’ll talk about several uncomfortable questions that are being asked about OceanGate and the Titan mission. There’s a great expression in there for you on Thursday, too—you’ll like that one. Just wait.

But while you wait, you can see this lesson’s full content at PlainEnglish.com/588. In addition to the transcript, the online resources include a few things. First, I pick two articles in English about the main topic and put them at the bottom of the transcript. So you can read more in English about the topic if you like it.

Second, there’s a feature called “Learn the Lingo.” These are the informal expressions—not critical to your speech, but useful. And I pick one from every lesson and I give you a definition and a guide to how to use it. Today’s is “pay the bills.” In previous weeks, we did poke fun , on the cheap , goes without saying , out of pocket . These just improve your speech, add a little color. So check that out every week only at PlainEnglish.com—join as a free member and you’ll get access to “Learn the Lingo .”

That’s all for me—see you on Thursday.

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Story: Titan implosion