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 — 12 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.”

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