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Of rage

January 31, 2009

One of my advanced students recently inadvertantly stepped into a linguistic bear-trap – the abuse of English by native speakers.  He reads a lot on the internet, which is great homework, but had been confused by an English usage that shreds my nerves.

The extraneous ‘of’

Starting with ‘off of‘.  I know it’s acceptable American idiom, but even American grammarians will only go as far as describing its usage as informally acceptable.  To me it’s redundant, and it grates.

Then there’s the ‘of’ which replaces the auxiliary ‘have’ in constructions like “must have”, “would have”, and so on.  “You should of seen it!” shrieks an internet writer who’s probably otherwise a literate adult, but isn’t giving any clues.  Use it once, you can be forgiven for typing faster than you’re thinking.  Use it twice, we cut your internet connection.

But the one that’s like fingernails down a blackboard is this last one.  Take the simple phrase “It’s not a big deal”.  Sometimes we want to modify ‘big’ with ‘that’ and move it before the article ‘a’ – it’s not that big a deal. (In that same way, ‘too’ – It’s too good an opportunity to waste.)

You might not have noticed it happening, but the internet is now awash with phrases like “it’s not that big of a deal“.  Don’t believe me?  Do a google search for “that big of a”, and it returns 1,230,000 results.  The correct “that big a” returns just 451,000.  The problem lies not in informally posted personal blogs or message boards, but for example many journalists, who should know a thing or two about register and tone, apparently don’t.

There are those who argue that language development is democratic, that sheer volume of usage determines what’s acceptable.  What this amounts to is if enough people get it wrong, it’s right.  That’s democracy for you.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. RMilner permalink
    January 31, 2009 10:41 pm

    “That big of a …” is American idiom my American boss was using in speech and writing 15 years ago when the general public was just getting started on the internet.

    The democratisation of publishing via blogs means a lot of rubbish gets published that would have been stopped by a decent sub-editor.

  2. January 31, 2009 11:02 pm

    Hi RM –
    Wilson Follett, in “Modern American Usage” refers to “too big of a deal” and similar phrases as ‘ruralisms’.
    To me it’s just grating. To Americans, it seems, it’s hick talk. 😉

  3. Ian permalink
    February 1, 2009 3:51 am

    I think its well good


    I’ll get my coat.

  4. remora permalink
    February 1, 2009 8:33 am

    My Mum gave me a really nifty Christmas Present – The Ode Less Travelled by S.Fry to help and aid my poetry writing but it also seems to clear-up the mystery of why most of my English Grammer Teachers have permanently scarred me with such appalling ability to express myself in Plain English – German is so much easier – remora

  5. remora permalink
    February 1, 2009 8:43 am

    ..and my Mum said to tell you that Presbyterians is an anagram of Britney Spears according to Mister Fry – now all I got to do is work out what an annagram is.

  6. remora permalink
    February 2, 2009 10:16 am

    The mediocre teacher tells
    The good teacher explains
    The superior teacher demonstrates
    The great teacher inspires.

    (William Arthur Ward)


  7. February 3, 2009 8:31 am

    What are you? some kind of puritan? (-:
    Languages change…that’s a fact of life..and it’s not that big of a deal. And before I get off of the subject…damn, i should of said before I get off the subject, right?



    • February 3, 2009 8:38 am

      Well, yes, I’m a paid pedant teacher!

      Change is great if it’s an improvement. In this case, it’s just unnecessary clutter, and English has enough unnecessary clutter (learners tell me) without adding to it. If the change is pointless, I think it should be resisted.

  8. February 3, 2009 3:20 pm

    Now that’s one to grow on!

    I think the use of “of” after should is because of the pronunciation of the contraction “‘ve” but i’d never be stupid enough to write it out. That’s pretty bad.
    Paid Pedant That’s funny!

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