A writer correcting a quotation that wasn't wrong created an opportunity to talk about something called "the intrusive 'of.'"
One day last week was a red-letter day for me. I was reading in my local newspaper an article about the deal by which, in 1947, the Cleveland Indians bought Larry Doby’s contract from the Newark Eagles, making Doby the first African-American to play in the American League. The price was a seemingly low $15,000. However, the article quoted a baseball historian, Jim Overmyer, as saying that relatively speaking, it wasn’t so low, because no other Black player fetched “that good [of] a price at that time.” The reason I was so excited was that the word “of” was in brackets.
In other words, in the interview, Overmyer had used the phrase “that good a price.” In the article the reporter added the word “of,” in brackets—meaning to correct the grammar, make the meaning clear, or both.
The intrusive 'of' is similiar to another use of 'of'
The construction in question is “[qualifier/intensifier] [adjective] of a [noun]”—“too big of a portion for me to eat,” “not that hard of a decision to make,” “not too good of a time,” and so on. It is traditionally and technically non-standard English, otherwise known as “wrong.” But I had observed it gaining popularity for some time, first in speech and then, more and more frequently, in print. I was fascinated by the newspaper example because it represented a milestone: the reporter felt it was so self-evident that the “of” was proper and good that he felt compelled to correct Overmyer’s (actually correct) sentence.
The prolific writer on grammar and style Bryan Garner coined a name for this construction: “intrusive of.” It has a pretty long history. Presumably, it derives from a similar construction which is unimpeachable: “[noun/pronoun] of a [noun].” For example—“prince of a fellow,” “giant of a senator,” “not that much of a problem,” and “enough of a delay.”
It began with 'considerable of'
In the United States (but not Great Britain), it all seems to have begun in the nineteenth century when “of” sneaked into phrases with one particular adjective: “considerable.” Mark Twain writes of the time a brick came through the window “and gave me considerable of a jolt in the back.” In his 1946 autobiography, William Allen White writes of someone who was “considerable of a socialist.”
Coincidentally, the first example I’ve been able to find of the intrusive “of” moving beyond “considerable” also occurred in 1946. An article in an Indiana prison publication called “The Lancer” had this sentence: “Ben was too good of a guy to lose that after he had been dreaming of it for so long.” The usage didn’t catch on like wildfire though. The next instance I could find was in the transcript of a conversation in a 1964 academic psychology article: “I had an outline that I was supposed to give but didn't think it did too good of a job.”
A sort of milestone took place in Congressional hearings five years later, when a federal administrator said, “His finances aren’t in too good of a shape.” With the count nouns “job” and “guy” and Twain’s “jolt,” the intrusive “of” feels OK. It feels like more of a stretch with a mass noun like “shape,” but the correct formulation—“aren’t in too good shape”—feels even more awkward. That calculus leads to the case of a baseball manager saying of a relief pitcher, “He didn’t have too good of stuff today.”
According to Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in the Google Books database, the intrusive “of” started to gain ground in the decade of the 2000s, but it’s still far less frequently used than the standard form.
The intrusive 'of' is more common in speech than in text
But note that Google Books consists only of printed sources, and the intrusive “of”’s glory is in colloquial speech. The Corpus of Contemporary American English, which includes television transcripts, movie scripts, and blogs, shows that in the years 2015 through 2019, the intrusive “of” was used only one-third less frequently than the standard form. If you consider speech alone, I’m pretty confident it’s now more common.
The intrusive “of”’s appeal is easily understood. It derives from a common and unimpeachable form, “that much of a …” as in “not that much of a stretch.” The extra “of” adds emphasis and punch, always desirable qualities.
It's best to avoid the intrusive 'of' in professional writing
However, the newspaper quotation I opened with is an outlier. The intrusive “of” may one day be acceptable in edited publications, but that day is not yet here. In his latest reference work, Bryan Garner calls it “unrefined usage.” Even the famously tolerant Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage concurs. “It is a spoken idiom,” quoth the MWDEU. “You will not want to use it much in writing except of the personal kind.”
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.