Two Words: Of

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Not literally two words. Just the one word — “of” — used in two different senses. Both jangling. At least to me!

Recently I’ve been hearing statements like “I missed that bullseye ‘cause I’m not that good of a sharpshooter.”

And there was the case of a minor soap star confessing, “I’m not that good of an actress.”

Is this usage wrong? I’m not sure, but “of” is unneeded in both cases. The wording would be tighter as “that good a sharpshooter” or “that good an actress”.

But just as I’m mulling this, along comes a Newsweek headline: “The Moon may of had an atmosphere for 70 million years.”

Whether or not the first usage of “of” is right, this second is definitely wrong. I think! Hard to be sure of anything these days, given the triumph of descriptive over prescriptive grammar.

Just don’t blame the Newsweek reporter, Janissa Delzo. In her article’s lead paragraph, she notes that scientists “now believe that our orbiting satellite may have once had a thick atmosphere”.

“May have had” is correct. “May of had” isn’t. Delzo got it right; the headline writer got it wrong.

Folks who aren’t journalists typically assume that the writer of an article also composes the headline. This rarely is true; these are different writing jobs, performed by different people.

Probably I should post a screen-shot of the Newsweek headline: It may of been corrected by the time you read this.

But I’m just not that industrious of a blogger.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


Two Words: Of — 18 Comments

  1. Hi Gary,
    In my opinion “of” has got to go in both instances.
    Ugly…useless…maybe originally introduced to
    accommodate a slight speech or airway difficulty.

    Happy to know you´re still busy at the keyboard.
    Must go to your site to see what you´re up to.
    Love to you and Cheri!!

    • I tend to agree, Edda — but please hear me out as to why I said I’m unsure the first usage is flat-out wrong (as in “I’m not that good of an actress”).

      My impression is that there are dialects of English in which this construction is standard. Now “standard” isn’t necessarily the same as “correct”. Also, I’m not sure where, or among whom, one would likely hear things said this way. What I do know is that I sometimes heard this very wording while I was growing up, in rural Appalachia.

      As a result of this cultural conditioning, I wouldn’t feel entirely unnatural if I spoke this way, among others who also speak this way. I might lapse unconsciously into the speech patterns of my youth. Or I might deliberately say things this way so as to better fit in.

      What I wouldn’t do is write using that construction — unless I were doing so for dramatic or humorous effect, or to make a point. As I do above, in fact. But never in formal writing.

      What I haven’t done is web-search the relevant grammar sites and texts to see whether any modern authorities condone this usage. These days, when everything is authorized as “correct” if only enough people say it that way, one can’t be sure. I could look it up, but I’m too lazy a blogger. (And see — that time I used it “correctly”!)

      • Your point is well taken Gary. Please note that I did make reference to the implicit demands of what I inelegantly referred to as speech or airway “problems”. A dialect is not a problem. But you can no doubt justify or at least explain unconventional speech or grammar patterns on just such factors as long-established local usage.

        • Agreed, Edda. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that anything and everything typical of dialect is necessarily correct. Not even within the context of that dialect, whatever it may be. And not even if it’s “standard” speech within that dialect. Perhaps some might view it that way. But I remain unconvinced.

          Many dialects, for example, embody unique variants of racial, ethnic, or demographic slurs of one sort or another. It’s hard to defend these as correct! And I don’t just mean they’re “politically incorrect”. Or grammatically incorrect. (Though they may be either or both.) I mean they short-circuit a clear exchange of ideas.

          And it isn’t just slurs. The main question I ask, when weighing whether something constitutes a syntax error, isn’t “Does this follow somebody’s stated ‘rule’?” It’s “Does this wording most effectively help us see into one another’s minds?” Grammar rules-of-the-road are meant to empower this flow of thought-traffic. Mostly they do that. But sometimes they get in the way, or lose their utility.

          I mentioned the Appalachian valley dialect with which I grew up. We might call it the Crow Creek Valley dialect: It differed significantly from other rural Appalachian dialects, because the valley was mostly isolated for many years; its speech patterns evolved independently. My guess is that no more than 200 or 300 people at any one time ever spoke it. I have many fond memories (and some not so fond) of that dialect; many of its constructions I still find endearing. Odd though they sound in hindsight, some of those added emphasis and clarity in ways quite ingenious.

          Others still grate horrendously on my nerves! Those were the ones that tended not to facilitate communication, but to replace it. Folks would mindlessly parrot things they had heard from others. The goal being to fit in by sounding like everyone else, even if no one had any idea what anyone was actually saying.

          Sadly, this problem isn’t confined to dialect. It’s the bane of modern language!

  2. Have you done on/about?
    “He published an article on correct usage of words”.
    On the news you hear “For more on this situation here’s George.”
    In both cases about would be more correct but is rarely used.
    Thanks for being there.

  3. Gary,

    Your second item seems to be an example of people writing as they hear others speak. The phrase “may have” is often quickly shortened to “may’ve” in casual speech (similar to “would have” becoming “would’ve”). When writing this down the “‘ve” part easily translates to “of”.

    • Wonderful insight, Peter. Spoken like the speech-and-language expert you are.

      My only carp is that if I write simply as I hear, without thinking about what I’m writing, then I’m not necessarily the best choice for writing headlines! Headline writers need to be even more skilled in the intricacies of language, and more sensitive to its nuances, than the writers whose prose they’re distilling into one-or-two-line summaries.

      You and your dear wife, Patricia, are sorely missed here in Knoxville.

      • Gary,

        I didn’t mean to imply that one should write as one speaks (I see them as different contexts requiring different approaches), but rather simply that this is a common practice.


  4. Good on that Gary, gardener of English that you are .
    My vendetta is against the nonsense phrase, “very unique.”

  5. The second usage drives me nuts.. but as someone else pointed out in the comments above, I think it comes from spoken English. Have becomes ‘ve, which sounds like of. People who have only heard it spoken and never seen it written, therefore, don’t know if it’s ‘ve or of!! Now, right there you can identify this group of people as a low education, non-reading demographic. (I don’t mean to be judgmental or snobby but my observation bears out my conjecture.)

    The first usage while not technically wrong, is certainly verbose.

    • Agreed. Regarding that second usage (“that big of a problem”), your explanation suggests to me a further wrinkle I’d not thought of till now: Might the headline writer have been dictating the headline using a speech-to-text system? She could have used an iPhone to tell the layout software that the headline should read, “The moon may’ve had an atmosphere…” That contraction would have been grammatically correct, but the software could have misread it as “may of”. Or even “auto-corrected” it to that!

      I just tested this, and Siri, on my iPhone 7 Plus, does indeed read “may’ve” as “may of”. Just a hypothesis. Nowadays all makers of mobile devices seem to have an artificial intelligence (AI) built into their stuff. iOS has Siri; Windows has Cortana; Amazon has Alexa; IBM has Watson; and Google has — okay, not sure what to call the Google “person”: Assistant? Google Now? Deepmind? (Google has never been very good at naming its products. Why would anyone name a social network “Google Plus”, anyway? But its AI is fairly good. I need to feed it this test.)

      • Very good conjecture. Might just be the case.
        Not relevant to this topic but Google’s AI research is indeed called Deepmind. I was reading couple articles online today shared by Elon Musk where Google’s Deepmind and Tesla’s OpenAI were discussed. Musk is skeptic when it comes to AI and is very apprehensive of an AI system taking over and considering humans redundant. I do share his opinion. Without a proper safety measures it has a good likelihood to go down like Terminator or Matrix instead of Asimov’s good robot scenarios. Machines do not have human safety or benefit in “mind”. They have to be taught that and it has to be built in (think of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics). Without those machines will be tempted to optimize for the most efficient scenario. And what’s most efficient according to a machine isn’t necessary the best outcome for humans. I have now read two stories, one from Facebook’s AI group and another from Tesla’s AI group which could be cause for concern.

        OTOH why did Google name the network Google+.. my thought is that according to Gundotra’s vision, the network was simply Google + a host of other things… like photos, video/hangouts, youtube, email/gmail and so on. That idea was the foundation for the integration that G+ saw earlier. With one ID you could use any of Google’s products/services. It was a great idea but it saw push back from inside the company and many users didn’t like it either… hence Vic’s departure. And the subsequent separation of all the features… photos spun off, hangout spun off, youtube decoupled.. etc. I think Vic had the right idea.

          • Good point! WordPress should provide a built-in way for authors of comments to edit those comments. I’ll scope around and see whether there is a plug-in or other add-on software that provides this facility.

            Meanwhile, anytime you want to edit something you’ve already submitted, please simply resubmit it — and I’ll replace it for you. You can email me the edited text (and you have my email if you are a subscriber; just hit “reply”). Or submit it as a new comment, with a note to me at the top saying it should replace the old one. Since comments are held for moderation, I’ll “moderate” it by cutting-and-pasting the new version over the old one, which will disappear.

            You can do this even if the original comment, in need of editing, has already appeared on the blog (as in the one above). That’s one of the blessings of having a smaller audience: I can actually read and respond to my readers. (Not that I’d turn down a larger audience! But we take our blessings as we find them.)

          • Dev (and everyone): I’ve added the ability to edit your comments on my blog, after posting them.

            Right now, the default window is just five minutes. That is, once you post your comment, you can make changes for that long before the comment becomes non-editable. Give me a bit of time, and I plan to increase the window to 30 minutes.

            Even after that, you’ll still be able, as I say above, to simply email me the revised text of your comment. I’ll then replace it on the blog, deleting the old version. No time limit for that option!

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