WOO: The War On Of

Having posted about

(1) (a) half (of) a Nom


(2) a half Nom,

focusing on the use of articles in such examples, I was moved to return to another aspect of these variants, the variation between plain (no of) and of constructions following half in the patterns in (1).

As I noted in that posting, some usage writers recommend against things like a half an hour on the grounds that it’s “redundant” or “pleonastic”; the advice is to omit one of the indefinite articles, as unnecessary. Some handbooks also recommend against

(3) half of NP (e.g., half of an hourhalf of the shrubbery, half of the bushes)

as having an unnecessary of; the advice is to omit the ofhalf an hour, half the shrubbery, half the bushes. Similar advice is given for

(4) both/all of NP (e.g., both/all of my assignments, all of the shrubbery)

where once again we are told to omit the of: both/all my assignments, all the shrubbery.

All of has gotten more attention than the others. A few handbooks are resolute on this advice:

Weseen, Words Confused, p. 10: use “all my friends,” not “all of my friends”

Flesch, The ABC of Style, p, 19: a good writer or editor automatically changes all to all of

Some merely say that the of is unnecessary:

Bernstein, Dos, Don’t, & Maybes, p. 12: except with pronouns, the of following all is superfluous and may be omitted

At least one connects the of to informal style:

Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), p. 33: All (of). The more formal construction is to omit of

Several handbooks (Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, p. 41; Evans & Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, p. 25; MWDEU) note that the all of variant is more recent than the plain all variant.

And some (Evans & Evans, pp. 12, 25; MWDEU again) simply say that both variants are acceptable, as Swan’s Practical English Usage does for all, both, and half.

So far, this is a story of Omit Needless Words, with some writers advocating omission and others admitting both variants. There might also be some additional prejudice against the of variants on the basis of their relative recency (variants that are, or are perceived to be, innovations are often disfavored) or — a probably related consideration — their relative informality (innovations are often perceived to be more informal than corresponding older variants).

But there’s more: a prejudice, plain and simple, against the word of.

Here’s Flesch (ABC, p. 210):

of is a weed that should be pulled out of all sentences where it doesn’t belong

We’ve already seen Flesch (above) on all of. In the passage following the weed-pulling injunction, he takes up three further constructions (discussed at greater length on Language Log, here), illustrated below (in examples simplified from Flesch’s originals), with Flesch’s recommended omissions in parentheses:

Of all the objections I got, not one (of them) was cogent.
… one of the most hazardous (of) medical procedures
… Goldwater’s explanation (of) how this came about

That was in 1964. The War On Of had been going on for some time.

One of the staunchest warriors these days is Bryan Garner. From GMAU (3rd ed.), p. 585:

However innocuous it may appear, the word of is, in anything other than small doses, among the surest indications of flabby writing.

Sometimes it’s actually (in Garner’s words) “intrusive” (p. 586), in particular in the of-marked variant of “exceptional degree marking/modification”, or EDM (too big of a dog, alongside the plain variant too big a dog). I’ve posted to ADS-L on of-marked EDM a number of times and intend to assemble this material into something more coherent, but for the moment it’s enough to say that for a couple of decades of-marked EDM has been high on the list of people’s pet peeves in English usage.

In this entry Garner also treats one case that he labels “superfluous” of: in dates, as in December of 1987.

In other entries, he recommends against P + of, in particular off of and outside of, two combinations that are widely disparaged in the usage handbooks (some discussion of P + of here).

These are more ONW cases involving of. And there are still others out there. For instance, Bruder’s The Grammar Lady, p. 146, tells us to say “the myriad new choices of majors” instead of “the myriad of new choices of majors” (Language Log discussion here).

Still other usages are recommended on the basis of brevity, but the recommendations don’t call for just omitting of. For instance, a number of writers (including Garner) suggest using despite rather than in spite of because despite is shorter.

Finally, there’s Garner’s “signaling verbosity” section in his of entry, where the objection is to material with many occurrences of of in close proximity. Here the advice is a complete recasting of this material — in which the texts are considerably shortened.

Back in my 2007 posting on Flesch, I wondered where the bad-mouthing of of comes from. My suggestion at the time:

An antipathy towards of has a long history in the advice literature on English, going back at least to H. W. Fowler and continuing in recent years to Bryan Garner.  The usual complaint is that of is too frequent (frequent words in general are deprecated, as being “over-used”) and has too many different uses (words with many uses are deprecated in general, on the grounds that they are potentially ambiguous), so it’s virtually meaningless (in general, words perceived as being “vague” are deprecated) and should be avoided whenever possible.   (You can find similar complaints about very, it, and, forms of the verb BE, and a number of other items.)  Now, it’s good advice to avoid piling up occurrences of of and similiar words in a short space, but an antipathy to such words in general is just silly; they perform crucial roles in indicating syntactic structure and discourse organization.

4 Responses to “WOO: The War On Of”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    “Goldwater’s explanation (of) how this came about” ?!? For me, omitting the “of” makes the sentence ungrammatical. “explanation how”: 130K ghits vs. “explanation of how”: 61M ghits.

    The “intrusive of” applies not only to EDM, but to any sequence ADJ (of) a NOUN: “not that big (of) a deal”, “how long (of) a flight is it”.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To mollymooly:

    (1) on “Goldwater’s explanation (of) how …”: I agree with your judgments entirely, and said so in the posting I linked to.

    (2) on “that big of a dog” and EDM: “that big of a dog” was an example, not a definition. Your other sentences are just more examples (of Deg Adj (of) a N). I apologize for not having embedded a paper on of-marked EDM in my posting, but I was trying to make the posting something of a manageable size.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    Surely, one “explains how” but it’s an “explanation of how”, just as one “destroys the city” but commits “destruction of the city”, or “explains the rules” but has an “explanation of the rules”. Nouns don’t take direct objects. Sheesh. Garner sometimes gets carried away.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    The Ridger: “Garner sometimes gets carried away.”

    To be fair: it was Flesch, not Garner, who insisted on “explanation how” and the like.

    But there is a sense in which nouns can take something very much like direct objects, in particular that-clause complements: “his admission that he had committed the crime” (parallel to “he admitted that he had committed the crime”). The issue is over interrogative WH-clauses, and here my English and Flesch’s part company.

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