Gratuitous “Of” In US English

Listening to podcasts and reading blogs I’ve come across a new dialectal quirk of US English. I don’t like it. It’s ugly.

In standard English worldwide, people will tell you how much or little there is of something, how few or many of them. “I can’t get enough of her”. “I put too much of my savings into stocks.” “There are too many of them.” “It’s not too much of a problem.”

“Of” goes with adjectives having to do with quantity and number. Not, for instance, with size, colour or shape.

Now, look at the fourth example above and imagine that “much” might be exchanged for any adjective. Then you get the turn of phrase that’s irking me. “It’s not too big OF a problem.” “Is that too strong OF a way to put it?” “Is my dress too green OF a colour?”

Hear ye, Americans! When you put that gratuitous “of” there, you sound like demented hillbillies! Please desist — if that’s not too great a favour to ask of you.

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Comments

  1. #1 Rabbit
    January 17, 2009

    Yeah, to hell with Shakespeare. Oh yeah, and Keats was a tosser as well. Bunch of hillbillies. :)

  2. #2 Mike Dunford
    January 17, 2009

    There’s something wrong with sounding like a demented hillbilly? Well, sheee-hit! Who’d ‘a thunk it.

  3. #3 llewelly
    January 17, 2009

    If you’d been paying attention for the last 8 years or so, you would know we Americans are demented hillbillies.
    (How did you think G.W. Bush got elected?)

  4. #4 Brian
    January 17, 2009

    I don’t think much or many work the way you think they do.

  5. #5 DianaGainer
    January 17, 2009

    Actually, hideous or not, “much” and “many” REQUIRE that icky little word, “of” after them before you can put another noun in the phrase. You can say, “I have many dishes.” But you cannot say, “I have many those.” That’s not grammatical, even if you like the sound of it. You must say, “I have many OF those.” Similarly, it’s ungrammatical to say, “I have had enough HIM.” You can say, “I’ve had enough TEA.” But a “he” isn’t a cup of tea, so you can’t treat HIM the same way grammatically. It just isn’t done. It’s nothing about hills or Billies. It’s just one of those many quirks of English. I realize English is chock full of quirks. But blame that on William the Conqueror. He should have stayed in France. Then we’d still be speaking Anglo-Saxon, not some half-Germanic, half-French creolized lingo that has rules that only ever apply to 2/3 of the language and the other 1/3 follows some totally different rule. But Bill wouldn’t leave well enough alone. He crossed the English Channel and we’re still all paying the price! Those Vikings! What was up with those guys!

    Sorry. I had to throw that in, you likely being a descendant of a Viking. I’m a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, so I roll around in piddly rules like this all the time. You can’t hillbilly ME into submission!

  6. #6 Sean McCorkle
    January 17, 2009

    “Of” goes with adjectives having to do with quantity and number. Not, for instance, with size, colour or shape.

    So why is”I can’t get enough of her”

    I can think of worse examples of the decay of english in the US.
    For example, At the national laboratory where I work, our Physical Plant Dept. trucks now display the slogans “Do it Safe” and “Work Safe”. I’m not kidding.

  7. #7 Sean McCorkle
    January 17, 2009

    I’m so sorry – I accidentally double hit “Return” which prematurely posted.

    If “of” pertains to quantity, why is “I can’t get enough of her” acceptable?
    There’s only 1 person, no? And we’re not talking about some fraction of “her”, right?
    Or does that mean that “I need more copies of her?” That’s weird too.
    That’s not how I understand the phrase.

    Rather, I think the statement “I can’t get enough of her” implies something like
    a “quantity of exposure time”, i.e. “I can’t get enough time with her”

    If you allow implied understandings in that example, then you must also allow
    them for your unacceptable example “That’s too much of a problem”.
    Like the first example, the target of “of” is singular – one problem.
    Problems are abstractions -they’re not concrete objects. So what is their
    nature? Are they discrete little things? Or are they nebulous, complex monstrosities?
    Are they more like bricks, or are they like oceans or storms? How do you visualize
    a problem in your mind? If they are somehow large and extended, then talking about
    a fraction of one, a part of one, is not hard to understand. Talking about a quantity of
    a problem doesn’t seem like such a reach to me.

  8. #8 Sean McCorkle
    January 17, 2009

    Sorry again. On rereading, I see I misunderstood. Your problem is with the usage of “much”. (wow I’m really having a hard time this morning)

  9. #9 yogi-one
    January 17, 2009

    That’s not much OF a blogpost there, Good Buddy! Are you making fun OF me? You probably wouldn’t like it that my living room couch came out OF my Dad’s old pickup, or that I haven’t taken the tires off OF my new house yet! You son OF a gun!

    Can’t get enough OF? I have had too much OF you edumacated, hoity-toity Yankee librul types trying to make fools OF us hard working ‘Mercans!

    Now if you’ll excuse me I got a big pot OF pig-fat boiling on the stove that I’m making one HECKUVA (take that!) sausage and egg breakfast out OF!

    Land’ o’Goshen! OF all the nerve….!!!

  10. #10 Dave W.
    January 17, 2009

    I should of read a different blog post.

    Hehehehehe.

  11. #11 Epicanis
    January 17, 2009

    “”Of” goes with adjectives having to do with quantity and number. Not, for instance, with size[...]“

    How is size not a quantity?

    (And as for the comment asking about “enough of her” – obviously this refers to the quantity (time and intensity) of exposure to the “her” in question, not the number of “hers”…)

  12. #12 Jonathan Lubin
    January 17, 2009

    Martin, I’m an insufferable language snob, and I have to say that your objection is perfectly well taken. I should also say that not one of the previous posters seems to have understood what you were driving at, in spite of the fact that you wrote perfectly clearly.
    The offending expression annoys me inordinately, too, but I see in Webser’s Dictionary of American Usage that the construction has been around since the early 40’s; they quote Pee Wee Reese saying in 1984, “It won’t be that long of a speech.”

  13. #13 Martin R
    January 17, 2009

    The expression “I can’t get enough of her” originated as humorous slang. Once, people would only use that expression regarding goods of some kind, like cigarettes or chocolate. Applying it to a person is of course, strictly speaking, a joke. But by now it’s solidified into an idiomatic expression.

    Epicanis, size and quantity are not the same thing. Size answers the question “how big?”. Quantity answers the question “how much?”.

  14. #14 Badger3k
    January 17, 2009

    There seems to be a problem OF comprehension…hee hee…although it is understandable, I think. The problem is not with the first examples, but the second set (the “is that too strong…” ones). Unfortunately, and this is a discussion we’ve had at school, is that languages evolve over time. We have to try to teach standard (American, I suppose) English, but as times change so do patterns and usages. We no longer speak with 17th century linguistic patterns (sorry, couldn’t think of another way to say that), but we have modernized. Where do we draw the line, and what standards do we teach at? I have no idea, but it’s a problem, and while not a huge one (I think, in terms of society in general, not in education), it can be really annoying for speakers of all languages. I’m more concerned with misspellings, made-up words, and fallacies in argumentation than in a preposition.

  15. #15 Onkel Bob
    January 17, 2009

    Hey boyz and gurls, can you spell ped·ant? I knew you could, Now just remember don’t any of you dare pronounce it pee-dant in earshot of this pedant.
    Sarcasm is as poor a teaching tool as pedantry, both only raise the defense mechanism of the audience and shut down the lines of communication.
    At least the hillbillies have the sense to stay in the hills and use the valuable flat land by the river for their agricultural crops. You bayou bubbas constantly had to run away from the rising waters and never yet learned to occupy the high ground.

  16. #16 Sean McCorkle
    January 17, 2009

    Epicanis, size and quantity are not the same thing. Size answers the question “how big?”. Quantity answers the question “how much?”.

    Okay, NOW you’ve pushed my button: For liquids, the concepts of quantity and size are so closely coupled that they’re nearly interchangeable. We often measure liquid quantities using units of volume (cubic centimeters) which are clearly units of three-dimensional size.

  17. #17 Sean McCorkle
    January 17, 2009

    The expression “I can’t get enough of her” originated as humorous slang. Once, people would only use that expression regarding goods of some kind, like cigarettes or chocolate. Applying it to a person is of course, strictly speaking, a joke. But by now it’s solidified into an idiomatic expression.

    So if I understand correctly, the original coinage of “I can’t get enough of her” really DID treat the woman as a quantity, like a candy bar, which is nonsensical, which would make it unacceptable usage, except for the fact that it has become an idiomatic expression, which makes it acceptable now?

    If so, what’s to keep “too much of a problem” from becoming an idiomatic expression and thereby achieving acceptability?

  18. #18 Larry Ayers
    January 17, 2009

    Sometimes you just have to get used to idiomatic language, Martin. Sarcasm won’t stop it.

    I don’t mind such expressions in a podcast, as the narration is spoken language. I have less tolerance for verbal idioms in blog posts. Some expressions don’t sound bad; in your examples, when the “of” is spoken it is usually elided and seems to make the rapid and slurred spoken English flow more smoothly. Listen to idiomatic spoken Spanish or French!

    On the other hand, in print such idioms can be jarring. Print is a more exacting medium, IMHO.

  19. #19 Al West
    January 17, 2009

    See: The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker. Prescriptions of language use are quite silly, really. One day, “your” will probably mean “you are”, and every day, I see “less [+ plural]“, instead of “fewer [+plural]“, and I expect that, too, will become the absolute norm. I will continue to use “fewer”, for instance, but I’m not going to stress over the language change, because that is what languages and populations do. Most people I know say “less cars” instead of “fewer cars”…

    I’m English, but I’m fine with US pronunciation and spelling where it doesn’t hinder understanding. “Is that too strong of a way to put it?” is certainly understandable. It might be ugly if you’re not used to it, as with any language usage, but it doesn’t necessarily make someone sound like a dumb rustic.

    As for comments above about English being a bastard language… well, it is, kinda. At the same time, it’s as consistent as most languages – the bastardisations don’t seem to have affected grammar all that much. It wasn’t affected too much by Anglo-Norman, grammatically, and we only have a few instances of French adjectival order(“attorney general”, etc) in legal terminology, for instance. Spelling probably wouldn’t reflect pronunciation well anyway (look at Danish).

    In the end, there’s no point being a stuck-in-the-mud. I like the diversity of English, even if, yes, of course, I find some uses a little ugly.

  20. #20 Dan
    January 17, 2009

    If you listen to enough hip hop and R & B, you stop caring about linguistic quirks. That’s the best music in the US, so we tend not to care about linguistic quirks. Also, no one in the US outside of a very narrow band of cosmopolitans has ever cared or will ever care about the way that foreigners hear our speech. That’s just the way it is.

    On a related note, I noticed a few months ago that many people write “I should of gone home” instead of “I should have gone home.” Prolly derives from the contraction

  21. #21 Martin R
    January 17, 2009

    I know that standard language is socially constructed and in a state of continuous flux. But that process is just the sum of a lot of individual decisions. So I do my bit to influence the way English (and Swedish) is going.

  22. #22 Jim Thomerson
    January 17, 2009

    I done bin to England. Them people talk a lot of different languages. What talk you talking about? I gave a presentation attended by folks from all over England. Afterwards over beer and sandwiches, they demonstrated a number of British dialects. Some I could undestand; some I could not.

    On the street in London, rwo guys in three piece suits, bowlers and unbrellas passed me. They were speaking one of the dialects I could not understand. I hear fluent Midwestern English behind me. Couple of guys in white saris.

  23. #23 Scott (Blog For Darwin)
    January 17, 2009

    I am irked when the word less is used when the word fewer should be. I think that the word fewer will soon disappear from English. You should use fewer in relation to nouns that can be counted; use less in relation to nouns that can’t be counted.

    CORRECT: I bought fewer pints of milk today.
    INCORRECT: I bought less pints of milk today.
    CORRECT: I bought less milk today.

    (Pints of milk can be counted; so use fewer. Milk cannot be counted; so use less.)

    CORRECT: There will be fewer cars on the highway next year.
    INCORRECT: There will be less cars on the highway next year.
    CORRECT: There will be less traffic on the highway next year.

    (Cars can be counted; so use fewer. Traffic cannot be counted; so use less.)

  24. #24 dreikin
    January 17, 2009

    On the subject of less vs fewer:
    Well, I’d bet a fair amount of it comes from “x < y” – which doesn’t care about the units at all, as long as they have numbers (or the possibility of numbers) attached. Since (in America) this is always “x is less than y”, and this principle is taught early enough to influence language usage, I’m not surprised to see people using it in that way. These days (in the places I’ve been), “fewer”, while appropriate in many circumstances, sounds much more awkward than the prescriptively inappropriate “less”, and so people will be less inclined to use it.

    On the subject of ‘of’:
    Well, this class of words (and a few others) tends to move around a lot – as long as the meaning is clear, their use is determined more by ‘feel’ than rule. This defers in formal languages, like the varieties of legalese, where everything has a well defined use that must be maintained in order for past, present, and future documents to be consistent enough for practical use.

  25. #25 Nomen Nescio
    January 17, 2009

    Hear ye, Americans! When you put that gratuitous “of” there, you sound like demented hillbillies!

    well, if’n y’all says so, i reckon i’d better up’n change mah figgers of speech then.

  26. #26 Nomen Nescio
    January 17, 2009

    Cars can be counted; so use fewer. Traffic cannot be counted;

    my local public works department would be surprised to hear that latter — they put out traffic counters across some of the busier roads here every summer. perhaps you meant to imply that the difference between a simple ordinal number and a rate over time is what changes the called-for grammar?

  27. #27 DuWayne
    January 17, 2009

    Jeezus, here I was all set to explain to Martin what he is actually hearing, when I read this.

    If you listen to enough hip hop and R & B, you stop caring about linguistic quirks. That’s the best music in the US, so we tend not to care about linguistic quirks.

    Dan, I am all about respecting hip hop and R&B – even rap. But quite honestly, other than a very limited amount of R&B, listening to any of it makes me want to pierce my eardrums. I mean seriously, this shit gives me a rash. As a songwriter and lover of great music, I just have to say you’re full of shit.

    Martin -

    So like Dan was saying, what you are hearing is really a contraction. I use such contractions a lot as a songwriter, to keep the rhythm straight (see Dan, it’s not just a fucking hip hop thing – ’cause I don’t write hip hop). If you hate the gratuitous use of the word of, you’d really hate some of the contractions I have used in the past.

    The thing about spoken American English, is that we’re pretty fucking lazy about it. Yes, it’s sad. But many of us really can’t be bothered to actually say the complete word. Although in our defense, some of us do it because we just talk too damned fast. Get me going and I’ll clip bits off my sentences so that I can get my point across.

    If it helps any, I really don’t think I do that with my written prose. And I only do it with my music (and occasional poetry) when it makes things flow properly. Think of it as a vernacular laxative…..

  28. #28 Martin R
    January 18, 2009

    DuWayne, you evil man. Adding a syllable is no contraction.

  29. #29 Tobias
    January 18, 2009

    If you consider it a connector instead of a contraction, then DuWayne’s reasoning makes sense; A word intended to improve the rythm of speech. However, such use, or abuse, if you prefer, will undoubtedly lead to more or less undesirable results as well.

  30. #30 DianaGainer
    January 18, 2009

    The moral of the story is, you hadn’t ought to git yer knickers in a twist over how folks is talkin’ nor how they is a-writin’ stuff, as long as you kin unnderstan’ whut they is a-sayin’, honey chile. ‘Cuz half the time, they ain’t a-writin’ nuthin’ and we cain’t figger out whut they is a-sayin’, not nohow! An’ iffen y’all don’t think Bill the Conqueror had an influence on English, then y’all ain’t read Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon lately. So git on back to ‘im lickety-split, now, hear?

  31. #31 DuWayne
    January 18, 2009

    Ok, so I am kind of evil, but I’m not adding syllables. And Tobias, while contraction might not be the right word, connector isn’t either.

    A line from a song I wrote writ properly;

    What have you done?

    The same line as it is sung;

    What of (or more accurately something between of and ave) you done?

    Is it possible that the first writing could work? Possibly. But it really doesn’t sound right in the context of the music that goes with it. It comes off sounding really stiff and stilted.

    I should also note that when I am putting verse to the page, I quite often use the proper word, the shortening being implied. And when I have done this with music written for someone else to perform, it invariably comes out the way I intended it, not the way it was written. Why? Because most of the people I have written for have a background in vocal music and most of us who do are taught from rather early on to shorten words to make them flow.

    As for using it in actual speech, I can only plead insanity. It actually happened to me last night and it occurred to me that it happened because I was in a bit of a manic phase. Upon further reflection, I realized that really, the only time I get going that fast, is when I’m manic.

  32. #32 Theron
    January 18, 2009

    It seems that “try and” as opposed to “try to” has become universal. Makes me nuts. Oh well.

  33. #33 christina
    January 19, 2009

    WOUW – seems you got a lot OF responses on this post!
    Isn’t it a bit like like? (how the word “like” sneaks itself into virtually every sentence in US english when spoken?)

  34. #34 Brian X
    January 20, 2009

    Martin:

    I think you’re forgetting one point — British and US English are essentially two different standards, mutually intercomprehensible but with somewhat different grammatical rules. Yes, perhaps the “of” in those cases is redundant, but it does make the sentence flow just the tiniest bit better to American ears, so it’s really just syntactic sugar (as we computer geeks might call it).

    Such quirks aren’t that unusual — the most extreme would have to be the katharevousa vs. dhimotiki standards in Greece until the mid-1970s, but the two different standards of literary Norwegian and the different spelling rules between Continental/African and Brazilian Portuguese (not to mention the wildly different pronunciation of the Brazilian form) correspond rather well with the differences in standard Englishes. (I think you’ll find that Irish English and Indian English also have some rather unusual grammatical and idiomatic quirks of their own.)

  35. #35 Brian X
    January 20, 2009

    christina:

    As annoying as it is, “like” as an all-purpose filler word has a rather interesting and complicated grammar…

  36. #36 Martin R
    January 20, 2009

    Brian, I am aware that English has many dialects. The purpose of my blog entry was to make my opinion known that a certain dialectal quirk is based in a misunderstanding of grammar and is ugly. Welcome to the blogosphere. (-;

  37. #37 Mark Mandel
    January 20, 2009

    DuWayne said:

    A line from a song I wrote writ properly;
     
    What have you done?

    The same line as it is sung;

    What of (or more accurately something between of and ave) you done?

    Is it possible that the first writing could work? Possibly. But it really doesn’t sound right in the context of the music that goes with it. It comes off sounding really stiff and stilted

    For that VERY well-established situation we have — TA-DA!!! — the Contraction:

    “What‘ve you done?”

    Works for me. That IS how we write that.

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