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A Word, Please: It’s kind of odd we use this tiny word when we don’t need to

A Royal Shakespeare Company production of "King Lear" at Royce Hall, with Sir Ian McKellen and William Gaunt.
A Royal Shakespeare Company production of “King Lear” at Royce Hall, with Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear and William Gaunt as the Earl of Gloucester. William Shakespeare was among the first to use “of” to connect a noun to a preceding qualifier, according to Merriam-Webster’s, as in “These kind of leaves I know,” from “King Lear.”
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Reader S.A. in Orange County, Calif., wrote recently with an interesting question: “I often hear or read comments where an unneeded ‘of’ is inserted, such as ‘It’s not that big of a deal.’ Shouldn’t it be ‘It’s not that big a deal’? It seems odd for people to add an extra word.”

S.A. isn’t alone. We’ve all seen and heard this use of “of,” including by highly literate people. For example, the famously brainy Freakonomics Twitter account posted a while back, “How big of a negative impact can noise have?”

“Big” isn’t the only word that inspires people to add an unnecessary “of.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage offers examples using “good” and “difficult”: I don’t care how good of a shape economists say we’re in. It wouldn’t be that difficult of a shot.

I agree with S.A.: It is odd. Why do we put that “of” there? I’m sure I’ve done so myself countless times, even though the sentence usually works just fine or better without the “of.” Consider all these sentences that are correct without “of”: How big a negative impact can noise have? It’s not that big a deal. I don’t care how good a shape economists say we’re in. It wouldn’t be that difficult a shot.

Here’s another thing that’s odd about this construction: Normally, when we English speakers create idiomatic uses like this, you can trace their origins back for centuries. Not so with “intrusive of.” Merriam’s found examples going back to the 1940s, but no earlier. And it’s mostly Americans using it.

June Casagrande shares some of the basic rules of English grammar for school-aged learners.

“What we have here is a fairly recent American idiom that has nearly a fixed form: ‘that’ or ‘how’ or ‘too,’ or sometimes ‘as,’ followed by an adjective, then ‘of’ and a noun,” writes Merriam’s.

I’ve long suspected that we insert an unneeded “of” because subconsciously we’re thinking of the words “much of,” as in “too much of a good thing.” But Merriam’s points out that “sort of” and “kind of” also helped lay the groundwork for unnecessary “of.”

“The current idiom is just one of a group of idioms that are characterized by the presence of ‘of’ as a link between a noun and some sort of preceding qualifier,” Merriam’s explains. “Perhaps the oldest of these is the ‘kind of a’ or ‘sort of a’ construction, which is used by Shakespeare and is even older than that.”

“These kind of leaves I know,” the Bard wrote in “King Lear.”

But just because “much,” “sort” and “kind” sometimes require “of” doesn’t mean “big,” “good” and “difficult” do. What sets these two groups apart? They’re different parts of speech.

“Good,” “big,” “talented” and “difficult” are adjectives. An adjective can go right in front of a noun, no linking “of” required: good shape, big deal, talented player, difficult shot. An added “of” would make all these examples into nonsense. The car is in good of shape. Their engagement was a big of deal. He’s a talented of singer.

“Much,” “kind” and “sort” are nouns in the expressions we’re talking about. Unlike adjectives, nouns can’t usually go right before another noun. What sort man is he? I really like this kind cheese. She gave away much what she owned. The nouns “sort,” “kind” and “much” often need an “of” to make sense.

That’s why it’s a mistake to let “much of” or “kind of” inform how you use an adjective.

“The word ‘of’ often intrudes where it doesn’t idiomatically belong, as in ‘not that big of a deal’ (read ‘not that big a deal’), ‘not too smart of a student’ (read ‘not too smart a student’),” warns Garner’s Modern American Usage.

When in doubt, there’s a simple test you can use to decide whether your phrasing needs “of.” Try taking it out. If your sentence works without it, leave it out.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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