I realized recently that I have been neglecting my responsibility to save English grammar in America. My sincerest apologies, but the Grammar Guerrilla is back to observe and complain about the expression “too good of.” We hear it most often on sports-talk radio, that endless source of malapropisms. We also hear it used in political conversations and in everyday speech: “He is too good of a receiver for that defensive backfield to cover.” In that construction, the preposition of is superfluous. It adds nothing but clutter. Its source is not a need for clarity but that great source of linguistic clutter: the American desire to intensify speech and writing. This is a particular problem in an age when people have come to believe that the only way to be heard or believed is to shout or use hyperbole.
We Americans intensify expressions in order to make them seem more urgent or important, but in so doing we clutter our speech and writing and make ourselves seem ignorant. It is not as if ignorance is not a pervasive problem. Again, I hear sports-talk figures, including writers—I am looking at you, Steve Sipple, longtime reporter and columnist at the Lincoln Journal-Star and now columnist and media personality at On3/HuskerOnline.com—using the construction, “me and him went.”
For the record, the correct expression is: “he and I went to the store.” He is the subject case of the masculine pronoun. The pronouns him and me belong to the object (direct or indirect) case. Literate English speakers write and say, “he and I went to the store,” because those are the correct pronouns. It is fascinating that public school graduates are very precise about faux pronouns (e.g., ze) but cannot tell the difference between the subject and the object.
This confusion is nothing if not an indictment of the state of public education. Sipple is in his mid-fifties. He should have learned the difference between the subject and the object by 1977. The Columbus (NE) public school system clearly failed him, but so have his copy editors at the Lincoln Journal Star. He is old enough to have been there when they still had copy editors. I have heard him say so. Had his copy editors stricken that expression from his copy with a blue pencil and sent it back to him, as they were charged to do, he would have learned from them what he failed to learn in grade school. Certainly, I continue to learn from my copy editors and proofreaders.
I suspect that people add the preposition of to comparisons because they assume that a comparison requires it. This is like the incorrect use of whom. People use whom as the subject of the verb because they know that whom is good grammar and so they slam that bad boy into the wrong place in order to try to be correct and, in so doing, they make a mistake.
The correct expression is, “he is too good a receiver” The preposition of adds nothing to the comparison. The most basic sense of the preposition of is that of source or generation or possession. It signals that a noun belongs to something or someone or that it comes from something or someone. Dutch Americans sometimes use a pidgin-English expression that captures the sense of source. To distinguish one Dirk van Osterloo from another Dirk van Osterloo, they say, “he is Dirk of Hendrik, not Dirk of Kees.” The preposition of is a translation of the Dutch preposition van.
When sports announcers and talkers use the phrase, “he is too good of a receiver,” they mean to compare one receiver with others. Some receivers can be easily covered by the defensive backfield, but this receiver is too fast, too tall, or too crafty to be contained by the defense. By omitting the preposition, the expression is more elegant. It says what needs to be said but without extraneous words.
There is more at issue here than another sloppy expression used by sportswriters and sportscasters. The state of sportswriting and sportscasting in the USA is indicative of a long-term decline in general literacy. Listen to Red Barber, who was, successively, the play-by-play announcer for the Reds, the Dodgers, and finally the Yankees. This is a great illustration of how a literate, articulate sportscaster sounded in 1947:
Here is Barber helping an NPR anchor fill time while they waited for the Space Shuttle Columbia to launch in 1981:
In Barber’s speech we hear no verbal filler or bad grammar. He illustrates that one can use good grammar without being stuffy. When Barber was “on the call,” as they say, there was no need for HD color television. The same might be said for Vin Scully and even Bob Costas. Bryant Gumbel was a sportscaster who did not need verbal filler or bad grammar to be colorful or interesting.
Red Smith was a beloved sportswriter who was literate and intelligent. He was a product of the Green Bay, WI public school system and Notre Dame University. He covered the Packers and the Fighting Irish and later wrote for the New York Times, when they still had a sports page.
Listen to man-on-the-street interviews with people in the 1950s and watch one from last week. It is not scientific evidence, but I am impressed by what seems to me to be a general and widespread decline in clarity of speech and thoughts. The phrase “too good of a” is just another brick in the wall of creeping illiteracy.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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