the problem of

Lots of people use the word “of” too much. This is a problem of enormous consequence.

OK, I’m exaggerating the problem, but not much.

Consider:

People use the word “of” too much. This is an enormous problem.

Better. Shorter. (Shorter is almost always better.)

People are already “lots,” and you can judge for yourself how enormous the problem is, but of is often unnecessary and invites unnecessary words. Before I explain, let me jump off of that thought for a second. Or just jump off that thought. You never have to jump off of anything. Just jump off. Or just jump.

Of is also usually unnecessary when we are owning as well as jumping. This is an essay of Wally. This is Wally’s essay. In this case, using of to indicate possession is unnecessary; that is what apostrophes are for. Granted it may help in some cases. “This is a photo of me” is not the same as “this is my photo.” But this is not the problem of which we speak.

That is the problem of which we speak. Why not “this is the problem” rather than “this is the problem of which we speak”? If you go through something you have written and circle every time you use of, you will find several cases where you have diluted what you are trying to say or clouded it with fog. (I could have said “a fog of unnecessary words” but it would have been unnecessary.) Try to rewrite the sentence without of if you can; you will usually like it better. Or at least the reader will.

Here is an example: “The effect of his action was amplified by social media.” You can argue whether the effect was amplified or the action was amplified, but once you choose, of is not called for. “The effect was amplified by social media” or “the action was amplified by social media.” Either choice is stronger.

The rewrite will be clearer and more concise. Consider:

1. The mayor of Jackson told the women of the auxiliary that the election of officers was very important.

2. The mayor told the women that the election was important.

Depending on the context, you could say auxiliary instead of women, but I’ll take door number 2. And a new mayor, especially if he still has a “women’s auxiliary.” Or if he told the women in the auxiliary something so obvious but didn’t feel he needed to tell the men. And since he said it was very important. (Don’t get me started on unnecessary adverbs. Actually, we will talk about them in another post.)

Unfortunately, in this case, I’m assuming the mayor is a male. This is also a problem. Giving him (or her) a name is even better. Gender and location are probably in the context—a named person in a named place.

Another good idea is to leave out the whole phrase, especially if what follows of can be determined by the context. Or more likely if what precedes the of can be determined by the context, as is likely in vague categories like:

problem of

area of

size of

field of

issue of

Just name the problem, area, measurement or discipline and get on with it. Otherwise, you may make things that should be the subject or agent into the object. Let me illustrate.

The problem of gerrymandering threatens democratic principles.

Gerrymandering threatens democratic principles.

The second example is shorter and more effective. The sentence is about gerrymandering after all.

Another example:

The size of the house intimidated me.

I could say “the size intimidated me,” especially if the context made it clear we were talking about a house.

I could also add a more descriptive adjective and say more with a word or two less, if not syllables.

“The palatial house intimidated me” says more than that it was big; it adds a consideration of style or opulence. (I doubt you would be intimidated by how small the house was.)

The point is lazy writing makes hazy writing. People use the word of without thinking about each case. And so they use it too much, and to poor effect.

Pop quiz: how can the sentence that begins with “the palatial house” be improved? Look for the of following the semicolon and go from there. Include your fix in the comments below.

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