July 22, 2007

One will get you four more

On Monday Alison Murie asked on the American Dialect Society mailing list about prepositions in clock time expressions -- a quarter to/till/until/before/of ten (to which we can add past/after, though I've been concentrating on the other set) -- and people began expressing an assortment of preferences.  Since I've been laboring on factors that favor the choice of one lexical variant over another, and in fact am teaching a course on the topic at the LSA's Linguistic Institute this month (course materials available here), the question looked looked right up my alley, so I went to see what people have said about these prepositions.  Damn little, as it turns out. 

But my searches through dictionaries, reference grammars, style manuals, and advice books of all sorts led me to four phenomena that I hadn't thought about before, all involving the preposition of.  This happens to me a lot: I look for one thing and stumble on others.  (I will, apparently, never lack for things to think about.)

First, the time prepositions.  Geography plays a role.  The OED notes that temporal of is "N.Amer., Sc., and Irish English (north.)", and that accords pretty well with my experience in England: I quickly learned to replace my Yank of with another preposition; in the U.S., my usual alternative is to, but in England I tended to favor before, because it's semantically transparent (not any sort of idiom) and therefore entirely safe.  Within the U.S., it looks like to is especially common in the Northern dialect area, and Joan Houston Hall writes to say that the Dictionary of American Regional English will label till as "widespread except Northeast, Great Lakes".  Given its distribution in the British Isles, I'd expect of to appear especially in areas with early Scots-Irish influence (which would include the Midland areas of the U.S. and parts of eastern Canada, but not the rest of that country, and probably would include Australia as well), and not to be used in AAVE; DARE has it as widespread, but especially Northeast and central Midland.

Whatever the geographical and social distribution of the variants, the fact remains that a great many people use two or more of them, and the question that really interests me here is what influences their choices.  Since the advice literature on grammar, style, and usage tends to adhere to the principle that there is Only One Right Way, I'd have expected this literature to be directive.  But so far I haven't found a prescription anywhere.  The Chicago Manual of Style (15th) has at least one example (He left the office at quarter of four, p. 391) with temporal of (showing that CMS is indeed an American style manual), but it illustrates a point other than preposition choice (and, incidentally, also illustrates a choice between a quarter and plain quarter).

There are lots of possible factors, stylistic and structural and maybe even semantic, that might be relevant.  Maybe, for instance, some people's preferences are different for ten minutes P T (where P is the preposition and T is the "goal" time), ten P T, (a) quarter P T, and elliptical variants (Let's meet at ten to, Let's meet at a quarter of).  Maybe it makes a difference if T is just a number (ten minutes to five), or has o'clock expressed (ten minutes to five o'clock), or is noon/midnight

I don't at the moment know a thing about these questions, though I do know that just asking people about their (or other people's) preferences or practices is not likely to produce accurate data.  Such reports are notoriously unreliable.  I don't trust my own reports, in fact.  We have to study what people actually do, in what circumstances, and that's not an easy task.

Putting these questions aside, I turn to the advice literature on of, which I explored in the hope that there would be something about temporal of there.  Now, I have been a visitor to the entries on of in this literature for many years, but for other purposes.  I can tell you that for about a hundred years, usage advisers have been railing at the "intrusive" of in off of, out of, outside of, inside of, and alongside of -- the Wordy Five -- especially off of.  (I intend to post on the subject eventually, but for the moment you can look at some course notes here.)  And for twenty or thirty years, they've been railing about the "intrusive" of in exceptional degree marking: too/that/so/how big of a dog, etc.; it's spreading fast, especially among the young, so it's become many people's pet pet peeve about English.  (I intend to post on this one too.)  Recent manuals are pretty much guaranteed to have complaints about these two.

I was, then, not at all surprised at the first sentence in Rob Colter's entry for of in Grammar To Go (3rd ed., 2005:59):

If you accept "It fell off of the table," then you should accept "It fell on of the table," since using of is as meaningless in the first example as in the second.

(though the reasoning by analogy is entertaining, since usagists uniformly reject analogical defenses of non-standard usages).  But the second (and last) sentence had something in it that was news to me:

The same can be said for "inside of," "underneath of," and "outside of."

Whoa!  Underneath of?  No one else seems to have complained about this one.  But it's out there, in respectable numbers.  A sampling:

The greatest accumulation of this potentially harmful debris is underneath of the vehicle, around the frame, undercarriage and wheel wells, etc.  (link)

To delete an existing photo and not replace it with another one, click on the word Delete that is underneath of the photo to permanently delete if from our ...  (link)

The battery access is underneath of the color LCD ... (link)

I want the line that is underneath of them to be one continuous line. (link)

It actually magnifies what is underneath of it, it's very cool.  (link)

Apparently, these writers are treating underneath as parallel to ahead and instead and the opposite of underneath, on top, all of which require of.  Non-standard, but not crazy.

In fact, DARE has of after prepositions other than the five that the manuals complain about: aboard of, above of, around of, aside of, behind of, beside of, on board of, over of, underneath of; these are labeled as chiefly Southern, South Midlands, and Northeast.  Having already searched on {"is underneath of"}, I went on to check out under of, over of, and, yes, on of.  Modest number of hits for under of, e.g.:

A child who is under of the care of some one else; Most children who are eligible to receive child support must be a dependent.  (link)

... shall allow any alcoholic beverages to be sold, given or otherwise supplied upon the licensed premises to any person who is under of 21 years of age, ...  (link)

The directorate is under of the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment. The directorate's mission is to "preserve biological diversity and strengthen the ...  (link)

There is a lot of benefits to taking this if a person is under of stress whether mental or physical. L-glutamine is a free-form amino acid (protein) that is ...  (link)

Some of the hits might be typos, but there are enough to suggest that under of is a live option for some people.  Fewer hits for over of, but here are two that are probably not typos:

No wonder Tom feels "an abounding sense of relief and security", as he stands over of his dead body. (link)

But I would never use it over of an iPod for music. And since Apple does such a great job with music and they know video better than the rest, ...  (link)

For on of, I got few hits, and most of them were probably typos of one sort or another.  But there is a little island of on of, in writings by and about people who practice healing by "the laying on of hands" (or "the laying-on of hands"), as in:

I want a church where they lay on of hands and heal people but that you don't have to give your address because it's that followup that I hate.  (link)
There are a fair number of such examples.  You can see where this usage probably came from.  People in these communities seem to refer to the practice by the action nominal the laying(-)on of hands (rather than the gerundive nominalization laying on hands).  The of can then be interpreted as a marker of the object of a complex verb lay on.

Next, I took a look at Rudolf Flesch's 1964 volume The ABC of Style, which I hadn't consulted for some time.  The entry for of was a complete surprise: no mention of off of and its brethren, but instead three complaints that were new to me.  Flesch (p. 210) begins sternly:

of is a weed that should be pulled out of all sentences where it doesn't belong

and goes on by giving six examples where of is to be extirpated.  There is no commentary, explanation, or characterization of the offending constructions; readers are entirely on their own.  The examples aren't even grouped into types; I've added identifying letters and brief characterizations.

  A: Repeated partitive

Of the 15 millionaires who used this charity provision to avoid playing taxes, eight (of them) made their charitable contributions to their own private foundations.

Of all the objections everybody had to giving me the part, not one (of them) was because I was too pretty.

  B: With superlative

The process of being born is one of the most hazardous (of) medical episodes in America today.

  C: WH-clause complement of abstract N

He emphasized his belief in the right of self-expression, leaving ambiguous the issue (of) whether spitting, pushing and placard-throwing were covered by his call for the articulation of deep convictions.

The only remarkable thing about Goldwater's explanation (of) how he and Senator Javits might find a way of living with each other is the fact that he made it.

There is no earthly explanation (of) why.

For types A and B, I agree that of COULD be omitted, but deny that it MUST be; in each case, there are two somewhat different constructions, with subtly different uses.  For type C, I find the first two of Flesch's "corrections" awkward, though examples without the of are certainly well attested; again, there are two different constructions.  I'll start my discussion with type C and work backwards.

Some background...  Complements of nouns get two different treatments, depending on their category.  NP complements of Ns are marked with of: the issue of the extent of his problem, Goldwater's explanation of their rapprochement.   That-clause complements of Ns are unmarked (in general, a that-clause is not eligible to be the object of a preposition): your explanation that you had to leave early to catch a plane.  What then of WH-clause complements (in whether, how, why, etc.)?

Such complements might be treated like other finite clauses, in particular like that-clauses; they would then be unmarked, as Flesch recommends.  Or since they are eligible to be the object of (certain) prepositions -- as in I know nothing about whether they did that, They said nothing about how they did that -- they might be treated as the equivalent of a NP; they would then be marked with of, as I recommend.  Clearly, many people (probably most) allow either treatment, and I would expect there to be a subtle difference in meaning or discourse status for the two treatments, or at least a stylistic difference.

On the numbers, marking with of wins handily over the unmarked variant, somewhere between 2-to-1 and 10-to-1 (there's a lot of the noise in the data), I would estimate from searching on {"explanation (of) how"}, {"explanation (of) why"}, and {"issue (of) whether"}.  Some examples:

This is a remarkable explanation of how the internet works!  (link)

Attached is the explanation how to do it ...  (link)

A Lengthy Explanation of Why There's a Picture of Bottles of Water.  (link)

"Is there an innocent explanation why my boyfriend feels the need to go to a nightclub with his mates?" (link)

Summary: This FAQ addresses the issue of whether base station transmitter/antennas for mobile phones (cellular phones, PCS phones), and other types of ...  (link)

On the issue whether a non-economic highest and best use can be a proper basis for the estimate of market value.  (link)

There's clearly more to be said here, but  I'll move on to type B.  The model for the version with of comes from examples like the Monty Python reference to the intelligent sheep:

that most dangerous of animals

In such superlative examples, the of is not omissible; its object is a full NP (plural or mass), which can contain determiners; the object is interpreted as denoting a type rather than an individual or individuals; and the construction is normally headless, with the semantics of the head supplied by the object NP (roughly, 'animal' in the Monty Python example).  In any case, in this construction of + NP is a partitive associated with the superlative (and not available for most other sorts of modifiers):

that/the most dangerous of all/our animals

cf.: *that most dangerous (all/our) animals  [without of]

cf.: *that most dangerous of animal  [with count singular object of of]

cf.: #that most dangerous of these animals  [anomalous if these animals denotes individuals]

cf. *that/the very dangerous of (all/our) animals  [with a non-superlative modifier]

There is an alternative construction with a singular (and overt) head, and without the of; this is just garden-variety premodification.  Among the available premodifiers are superlatives like most dangerous (though many other modifiers, like very dangerous, are possible), and the head N can be understood as referring to an individual or a type:

that/the most dangerous animal 

cf.: *that/the most dangerous of animal  [with of]

cf: that/the very dangerous animal  [with a non-superlative modifier]

There are simply two different constructions here, with slightly different meanings.  Flesch's example with of is of the first construction, his of-less "correction" the second.  It just happens that the understood head in the of-full version is plural (something like 'medical episodes'), as in

those most hazardous of all medical episodes

so that one construction can be "converted" to the other by removing the of.  This is essentially an accident.

You get the feeling that Flesch spent a fair amount of time as an "of-hunter", reading texts for instances of of that could be removed, without really understanding the syntax of the material he was looking at.

An antipathy towards of has a long history in the advice literature on English, going back at least to H. W. Fowler and continuing in recent years to Bryan Garner.  The usual complaint is that of is too frequent (frequent words in general are deprecated, as being "over-used") and has too many different uses (words with many uses are deprecated in general, on the grounds that they are potentially ambiguous), so it's virtually meaningless (in general, words perceived as being "vague" are deprecated) and should be avoided whenever possible.   (You can find similar complaints about very, it, and, forms of the verb BE, and a number of other items.)  Now, it's good advice to avoid piling up occurrences of of and similiar words in a short space, but an antipathy to such words in general is just silly; they perform crucial roles in indicating syntactic structure and discourse organization.  You can appreciate this point by looking at the twenty most frequent words in the Brown Corpus and asking yourself how you would get along if you had to avoid them whenever possible:

the, of, and, to, a, in, that, is, was, he, for, it, with, as, his, on, be, at, by, I

(A side point: the "words" on this list are picked out orthographically.  A number of them -- notably to and that -- clearly represent two or more distinct lexical items, while others listed separately belong together as forms of a single lexical item: is/was/be and he/his.)

On to type A.   Here we have a fronted partitive, of + NP, which is interpreted in combination with a later quantity determiner.  Flesch's first example, simplified here,

Of the 15 millionaires who used this provision, eight contributed to their own foundations.

is a variant of

Eight of the 15 millionaires who used this provision contributed to their own foundations.

Why would someone want to repeat the fronted partitive (in a pronominal version)?  To make the connection between the fronted partitive and the quantity determiner absolutely clear.  The single-partitive version,

Of the 15 millionaires who used this provision, eight contributed to their own foundations.

takes, I think, a bit more interpretive work than the double-partitive version,

Of the 15 millionaires who used this provision, eight of them contributed to their own foundations.

Well, that's just speculation, but it should be possible to test.  In any case, I don't find the double-partitive versions unacceptable, or even pointlessly redundant (they're just more emphatic).  Flesch clearly did, but then he was a demon for brevity.

In the end, I didn't find much on the temporal prepositions, but I did unearth underneath of and its relatives, plus three constructional choices involving of.  One will get you four more.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 22, 2007 12:05 PM