The Wicked Of



What would prompt H.W. Fowler to pick on the word of?

Fowler (1858-1933), whom many regard as the dean of English-language scholars, ascribed to of “the evil glory of being accessary to more crimes against grammar than any other.”

Do not be fooled by looks. Weighing in at a svelte two letters, this petite preposition couldn’t appear more guileless and benign. But of is the culprit in many, perhaps most, subject-verb blunders.

Those who watch their English must constantly remind themselves not to mistake the noun in an of phrase for the actual subject. This is a key rule for understanding subjects. Hasty writers, speakers, readers, and listeners might miss the error in the following sentence: A bouquet of roses lend color and fragrance to a room.

Make it A bouquet of roses lends color and fragrance to a room. In the sentence, roses is the object of the preposition of. The true subject is bouquet (bouquet lends, not roses lend).

But once we learn that principle, here comes of to stir up yet more mischief. First, consider this sentence: He is the only one of those men who is always courteous. Where’s the mischief, you may well ask; who refers to one, calling for the singular verb is. True enough—but wait, we’re not finished.

Now look at this almost identical sentence: He is one of those men who is always courteous. That is incorrect. The correct sentence is He is one of those men who are always courteous. This time the word who refers to men, requiring the plural verb are.

Are you skeptical? If we slightly change the word order, which verb would you select: Of those men who is/are always courteous, he is one. Would anyone choose men who is?

If any armchair grammarians remain unconvinced, let them try to explain this sentence: Pope Francis is one of the popes who has led the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years. Obviously, it’s utter nonsense unless the verb is have led. It may madden us, it may sadden us, but popes—despite being the object of of—necessitates the plural verb have led.

Thus does of sabotage our best efforts. First, we train ourselves to ignore an of phrase in order to find the true subject. Then a he is one of those sentence comes along and we find that the object of the preposition of is the key to finding the correct verb.

Mr. Fowler, you do have a point.

 

Pop Quiz

These sentences contain prepositional of phrases. Correct the ones that are wrong.

 1. Neither of the books have arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who likes Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always work hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable.

 5. Each of the brothers said they were sorry.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

 1. Neither of the books has arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who like Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always works hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable. CORRECT

 5. Each of the brothers said he was sorry.

 

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014, at 5:03 pm

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8 Comments on The Wicked Of

8 responses to “The Wicked Of

  1. Toni says:

    Since we are on the subject of “of,” can you also explain what the rules are for something like “a variety of causes was/were to blame.” I know “a number of” and “the number of” take plural and singular, respectively, but does that also apply to “a variety” and “the variety”?

    Thanks,

    • The Chicago Manual of Style’s rule 5.9 says, “Mass nouns are sometimes followed by a prepositional phrase, such as number of plus a plural noun. The article that precedes the mass noun signals whether the mass noun or the number of the noun in the prepositional phrase controls the number of the verb. If a definite article (the) precedes, the mass noun controls, and typically a singular verb is used {the quantity of pizzas ordered this year has increased}. If an indefinite article (a or an) precedes, then the number of the noun in the prepositional phrase controls {a small percentage of the test takers have failed the exam}.” Therefore, write “A variety of causes were to blame.”

      • Very confused says:

        Why is it ‘a bouquet of roses lends’
        When ‘a variety of causes were’ is correct?
        They both begin with an indefinite article. Shouldn’t roses, the prepositional phrase, control the verb?

        • The Chicago Manual of Style’s Rule 5.9 only applies to mass nouns or words that indicate portions.. “A variety of causes were to blame” fits this description. The phrase “a bouquet of roses lends” does not contain a mass noun or a portion phrase. Therefore, the subject bouquet controls the verb. See our post More Of for more information.

  2. Oliver M. says:

    Guess I’ll be just one of those people who continue to mess up when using ‘of’… But to me, many times if something sounds right when spoken out loud, I’ll just go with it… regardless whether it’s really right or wrong…

    Thanks for all the continued educational tips…

  3. Bill Bourn says:

    I just spent some time trying to find discussion of phrases of the form “something of a.” Too much of a good thing?

    “of a” seems replaceable by “a” in many cases. I was looking for support of this premise.

    Thanks for your consideration.

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