Throughout the course of a long career as a teacher of English at a variety of independent schools, I curmudgeoned (sic) my way through countless fruitless corrections of contemporary misusage of what I called “English as spoken by the company of educated men and women”.
The very notion of such a company struck my audiences as both unlikely and unfortunate. Had such an evenly accomplished group of speakers and writers existed (and why would it?) , they argued, surely it would have had better things to do than to cavil about the distinction between words such as alumnus and alumni, say, or like and as – words that obviously mean the same thing in any reasonable conversation.
The sharper of my linguistically slovenly adversaries would point to my own weakness for whimsical constructions, such as the playful repurposing of a noun, “curmudgeon” into a verb, as above. “Ah,” I’d retort, “but I can toy with language BECAUSE I know the rules,” essentially playing the “Don’t Try This Until You Join the Company of Educated Men and Woman” card.
I have softened over the years. Some. I do understand that language has to evolve to meet the needs of contemporary speakers. Grotesqueries of construction still sting, but I can get through most ordinary exchanges with little injury.
However, like the compulsive who must check locks and burners, I seem to be unable to ignore the steady, droning, inclusion of the word ‘of’ where no ‘of’ is needed. I hear it everywhere and from every quarter.
“He is too good of an athlete to miss that shot.”
“He was not that great of a writer.”
“It’s not that big of a city.”
Too long of a trip, too much of a bother, too scary of a movie, too belittling of a comment, too rancid of a smell, too futile of an effort, too complicated of an explanation… to infinity and beyond.
In the cranky nether regions of my understanding, the word ‘of’ is a truly exceptional preposition, carrying more than a dozen meanings.
A block north of here – distance
The sow died of measles – causation, indicating result
A box of chocolates – containing or carrying
Songs of Norway – origination, derivation
Made entirely of cotton – composition
From the two of us – comprising a group
Cheated of my chance to succeed – separated from, distanced from
People of your persuasion – identity, association
Graduation brings a moment of celebration – purpose, setting aside
I’ll see you at quarter of eleven – until, before
He grew to a height of six feet – specificity
Chauncey had a love of baseball – direction, attachment
The pen of my aunt – possession
The fruits of my labor – production, origination
He gave his word of honor – possessive identity
Nice of you to come – identifying personal quality
Not bad for a small word.
Or, as far too many would observe, “Not that bad of a range for that small of a word.
Less is usually more, and in this case, genuinely better.
In closing, however, I must observe the one great exception to my caviling exasperation with the omnipresent ‘of’.
In learning of his sister’s untimely death by drowning, Laertes replies, “Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, and therefore I will forbid my tears.”
It’s a curious locution, slightly distancing, and the more effective in its awkwardness. So, unless a writer or speaker has the extraordinarily nuanced command of language as Shakespeare had, restraint in tossing ‘of’ around willy nilly remains valuable.
The keen observer will have noted the use of the word ‘as” rather than the word ‘like’ in the previous sentence, but more of that anon.