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Do You Overuse "Of"?

Prepositions can be confusing.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
January 16, 2009
Episode #153

overusingof

Today's topic is nixing the horrid "of."

How to Use the Word "Of"

Almost everyone has a few bad writing habits. They're often the kind of thing experts or even your friends can point to and say "Yup, I know who wrote that." One of my bad habits is that I tend to overuse the word "of." A while ago, I was working on a technical document, and as I read back through it I noticed that there must have been 20 instances of the word "of." Ugh!

Bad Uses of "Of"

"Of" is a preposition, and although it's not an inherently evil word, overusing it can make your writing sound passive and fussy. Here's an example of a bad sentence:

BAD SENTENCE: She is the wife of George.

That's just horrible. It makes me cringe just to say it. It makes me think of Margaret Atwood's book "The Handmaid's Tale," in which the handmaids had names like "Offred" and "Ofglen" to indicate that they belonged to Fred and Glen. They were the handmaids of Fred and of Glen. But I digress.

Here's a better way to say the same thing:

BETTER SENTENCE: She's George's wife.

See? You don't need the "of." The sentence sounds much more straightforward without it. She's George's wife.

I'm hopeful that none of you would actually write, "She's the wife of George," or any other such strained sentence, but more subtle unnecessary "ofs" can slip into your writing if you aren't careful. Here's a more reasonable example: Reporting on some bizarre science experiment, you might write, "The length of the remaining string can be used to calculate how far the snail has moved."

There's nothing really wrong with that sentence, except that it leaves you wondering how to attach string to a snail, but you'd probably get to that later in the paragraph.

Nevertheless, you could tighten up the sentence by rewriting it to say "The remaining string length can be used to calculate how far the snail has moved." See? "The length of the remaining string," compared with "The remaining string length?" The second version, without the "of," sounds more direct.

Good Uses of "Of"

But remember, I said "of" isn't always wrong. There are good ways to use the word "of." For example, "Please bring me a bucket of water." You have to write it that way to show that you want a bucket that actually has water in it. If you tried to rewrite it the way I did the "length of string" example, you'd end up with "Please bring me a water bucket," which has a different meaning. People would think you were asking for a bucket that is meant to hold water, but is currently empty.

You may remember that in episode 128 I talked about using "of" to show possession. "Of" is especially useful when you are dealing with double possessives. For example, if you want to talk about a photo that you own, you probably shouldn't say "That's my photo" because people might think it is a photo OF you instead of a photo that belongs to you. You could say "The photo belongs to me," but you could also use an "of" and say, "That's a photo of mine." The "of" indicates possession as does the word "mine," which is what makes it a double possessive.

I also find "of" to be useful when I'm dealing with a complex trail of possession. I'm not certain this is a rule, but I find it easier to follow something like "He's the cousin of my neighbor's brother" than "He's my neighbor's brother's cousin."

Finally, there is at least one idiom where you need an "of": You need it in the phrase "a couple of." You have a couple of marimbas, a couple of friends, and a couple of feather boas. In most similar phrases the "of" is considered unnecessary, and you can leave it out. You jump off the pier, not off OF the pier, for example, but "a couple of" is a special case.

So although "of" can be useful, it can also clutter up your writing. If using it the wrong way is one of your bad habits, as it is mine, you might want to use the "find" feature of your word processor to search for the word "of" after you've finished your first draft to look for sentences that could stand some rewriting.

Administrative

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Note: Yes, the subheadings are supposed to be a joke.

Sidetracked

Fun things I discovered while researching this topic:

Spell using Flickr images

Find out what your phone number spells

NATO phonetic alphabet (e.g., alpha, bravo, charlie)

Word Neighbors (Thanks to "Dismay" for recommending this link.)

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