[__] Mice and Men: The Case of the Missing “Of”

When I first became a university writing instructor, my biggest challenge was overcoming my obsession with correctness. It’s not that grammar isn’t important; it’s just that teachers of writing understand that content is where the good stuff is, and over-emphasis on grammar stunts developing writers, stagnating their growth in any area but correctness.

Having offered that disclaimer, I’m noticing that the preposition “of” is increasingly being neglected. This isn’t new in speech, but I don’t recall seeing so much of this in writing before. Why am I reading “couple weeks” instead of “couple of weeks” or “couple times” rather than “couple of times”?

Let me explain the grammatical ins and outs of this. The word “couple” is a noun so pairing it with another noun like “weeks” or “times” is akin to saying “flock seagulls” instead of “flock of seagulls” or “time day” instead of “time of day.” It’s just … well … wrong.

Now I frown upon correcting everyone’s speech. For one thing, it’s just rude to interrupt a person’s thoughts to arrogantly point out what usually amounts to a pet peeve and almost never has any bearing on the content of what’s being said. Not to mention that anyone who’s done transcription knows that speech is never centered around punctuation or grammar — it’s a freeform blending of syntactical and non-verbal cues that convey meaning in a very different way than written language.

Having said that, as a teacher who values reflection and freewriting, I have no problem with slang woven into low-stakes prose, but when it seeps into formal places like journalistic or academic articles, my feathers get a bit ruffled (yes, I did just use a cliche and did so with full rhetorical awareness of its impact, something I doubt those who neglect “of” consider).

I’m not sure what this says about me, being bothered by this simple error, especially considering the fact that I view so many other rules as anachronistic — like the rule that says you can’t use contractions. An observant reader will notice that I use them frequently as you can see throughout this post — simply because Standard American English needs to evolve just like every other form of language, and contractions help writing flow in a more natural way, so why not use them? Many would answer “because that’s too informal” (notice that his/her answer contains a contraction), but anyone who’s converted an essay into a presentation knows that one of the first things you do to make the verbiage smoother is make the language more conversational, i.e. adding contractions.

Maybe this trend of missing “ofs” has roots in creative writing. I know Twain liked to experiment with nuances in dialects, and I’ve seen many southern characters’ accents riddled with shorthand and apostrophes (ex. bag ‘o flour), so perhaps this is the next step in the evolution of Standard American English, in which case, I need to get on board or be out __ order (see, it just doesn’t sound right without the “of”).

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Filed under first-year writing, grammar, Inquiry, Writing

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