Do You Overuse 'Of'?

Almost everyone has a few bad writing habits. Mine is overusing the word "of." Here are some mistakes I make and how to fix them.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read

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.  She always writes things that way." One of my bad habits is that I tend to overuse the word "of." A while ago, I was working on a document, and as I read back through it, I noticed 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 "The Handmaid's Tale," in which the handmaids have names like "Offred" to indicate that they belonged to Fred. 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 is 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 "of"s 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 your write-up.

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? Compare "The length of the remaining string," with "The remaining string length?" The second version, without the "of," sounds more direct.

And here's a final example how the word "of" can be a sign that your writing is bloated and could be more direct.

First, the bad sentence:

You can tell that the readers are passionate about flocked Christmas trees by the criticism of tiny details of tree pictures online.

You can get rid of that "of" in the part about the "criticism of tiny details" and make it better:

You can tell that the readers are passionate about flocked Christmas trees by the way they criticize the tiny details of tree pictures online.

The first sentence isn't wrong, but can you hear how the second sentence sounds more active and direct?

Good Uses of 'Of'

But remember, I said "of" isn't always wrong or bad. There are good ways to use the word "of" too. 

In that last sentence, there isn't really a way to get rid of the word "of" in the phrase "the tiny details of tree pictures." You could use a different preposition, like "the tiny details in tree pictures," but it's essentially the same. 

Another example is "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. So you need the "of."

You may remember that in a previous episode, 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 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.

Note: Yes, the use of "of" in the subheadings is supposed to be a joke.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.