Of 'of'

For a tiny word, “of” causes a lot of trouble. It pops up where it doesn’t belong in sentences like “I should of known.” It baffles even word-savvy users in expressions like “too big of a deal.” And it has an uncanny power to promote wordy, inefficient prose.

If you grew up speaking English, you never really had to learn “of.” Unlike “photosynthesis” or “gerrymander” or “noun” or any other word that teachers actively teach, “of” is so fundamental to the language that we can use it intuitively almost as soon as we start stringing sentences together.

A lot of English speakers probably don’t know that “of” is a preposition. Most of us couldn’t give a good definition for it. And most of us, if we ever looked it up in a dictionary, would struggle to understand what we were reading. For example, here’s the first definition of “of” in Merriam-Webster’s: “used as a function word to indicate a point of reckoning: ‘north of the lake.’” Here’s definition two: “used as a function word to indicate origin or derivation: ‘a man of noble birth.’”

When you think about how poorly we understand “of,” it’s amazing we can use it at all. No wonder we stumble sometimes. Here's my recent column about these common errors.

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