The Grammar Guerrilla Returns: Dismantling The Wall Of Creeping Illiteracy

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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25 comments

  1. In the words of Professor Henry Higgins, “There even are places where English completely
    Disappears. In America, they haven’t used it for years!” – that has been true for many a decade. So, why the amazement?!

    • I couldn’t stop laughing! 😂 Languages change because the way people use them changes. What was good usage in Old English makes it almost a foreign language today. The masses of people using the language dictate what becomes acceptable. I’ve heard the expression, “too good of a….” so often, in my neck of the woods, that I am convinced it has become the new standard!

      • Angela,

        Language changes by use but subjects and objects remain what they are. It is also true that reformation of language does happen. We had a Renaissance, wherein much learning was recovered. We need not settle for barbarism.

    • Good grief.

      I live in the Ozarks where people are PROUD of reminding people farther South that ’round ’bout these here parts, we talk about “you’uns,” not “ya’ll.” (What some longtime locals say about people farther North and their accents probably is best not repeated in polite conversation — I’ve been called a Yankee more than a few times, and not as a compliment.) Earlier this year, a linguistics professor gave a speech to a local historical society on how “Ozarkisms” in some cases preserve forms of speech that date all the way back to the Scots-Irish emigration, which farther South were often overwhelmed by the predominantly English upper-class planter culture, but in the Ozarks continued to be used well into the era of radio and television, and even today some continue in common speech.

      Are there regional differences? Does language change? Of course it does. There’s nothing wrong with tolerating or even celebrating regional differences.

      That’s not what’s happening today. The lack of respect for basic grammar has two roots:

      1. Teachers who don’t care because parents and administrators don’t care, won’t back the teachers who do care, and may even penalize them.

      2. Political activism is causing people not only to use gender neutral language (which may be legitimate in some cases when the gender of the subjects of a sentence is not known or not relevant) but also to deliberately use plural rather than singular pronouns to avoid identifying gender while retaining the singular verb. What used to be called “subject-verb agreement” is now viewed as “risking misgendering.”

      That second problem has become so bad that its advocates are even exporting American liberal linguistic values to inherently gendered languages like Spanish. Fortunately, terms like “Latinx” rather than “Latino/a” have received widespread ridicule and well-deserved attacks by many Hispanics. Some of them rebuke American professors for trying to “push a colonialist North American agenda on our Hispanic language and culture.” I’m less familiar with the French pushback but I understand the “language police” in France, who cannot fairly be accused of any sort of conservative Christian bias, are reacting quite negatively to the “Americanized pollution” of their language.

      That accusation is rich, it serves the Wokistas right, and “pulling the bigotry card” may be the only language the Wokistas understand that will cause them to back down.

    • One more item with direct reference to the Henry Higgins comment about Americans not having used English for years. It’s been more than a decade, but when my niece came from South Korea to study in the United States and learn English, once she learned enough to have real conversations with her junior-high-age friends, they told her that “your uncle doesn’t talk like an American” and asked if I was also an immigrant.

      I thought at first, “They must mean I’m not a Southerner.” That would be a logical conclusion. But nearly all of her friends were from military families that moved all the time, none had a Southern accent, and most had previously lived in several different states far away from Missouri.

      Apparently, some had the idea I might have come to America from Italy, but it was more than that. It turned out they meant I used precise grammar, not “common language,” and had learned English in school as a second language. The school my niece attended is a private Christian school that actually DOES have high standards, but the unintended lesson the students were learning, or at least some of them, was that “you speak and write one way in school and another way in other places.”

      Schools that have high standards for English composition and for spoken English probably need to be aware that the English rules they are teaching are becoming unusual outside the classroom. There was a day when we used to tell high school students that they need to learn to write well and speak well because it will be expected in job interviews and job applications. I don’t think we can say that anymore, particularly for entry-level positions that don’t require college education.

    • Darrel:
      You make a very interesting point, that the rules of proper language usage, that are being taught in schools, may be quite different outside of the classroom. Using proper English for a job interview, rather than the common usage, may actually raise concerns about how one would fit in, and communicate, with other employees and customers!
      I had to chuckle about the question of whether you were an immigrant, because you used precise grammar instead of the common language!

  2. As a fan of NHL hockey and the NJ Devils specifically, I’ll put in a word in support of Mike “Doc” Emrick, an actual PhD from Bowling Green State, former professor at Geneva College, and hockey announcer for over 50 years. Especially memorable are the calls from those great Devils teams of the ’90s and early 2000s, including Martin Brodeur’s empty-net goal in the playoffs against Montreal.

    He was as articulate of a broadcaster as anyone…

  3. Mr. Clark,
    I am in agreement with the gist of your article “The Guerilla Returns.” I have fought this battle since being motivated reading Edwin Newman’s “Strictly Speaking” in high school. I have since given up; language changes and, like a steam locomotive, cannot be stopped. I have become guilty of grammatical incorrectness. As a piano technician, when I read books written by colleagues of years’ past, I am impressed with how people with only high school education or less write. It’s a joy!

  4. Yes, this superfluous use of “of” may be too much a “good” thing (Note my correct omission of “of” – it’s the first time I’ve ever refrained from saying “too much of a good thing” – but why does the latter still sound correct to my ears? Guerrilla, please, to the rescue!).

    • I think the difference lies in the sense of the phrase. The preposition of in “too much of a good thing” signals possession or source. I don’t think “too much a good thing” is an English expression. It might occur in an Alan Jackson song but I didn’t investigate to confirm. The expression “too fast of a runner” implies a comparison not a relation of source or possession.

  5. I have been an educator in Christian private schools for several years now, mostly as an English teacher. The lack of grammar education is appalling. I was told by the head of the English department of a school that “spelling may not be a hill you want to die on.” I no longer work at that school.

    Even where I’m at now, there is a constant push against focusing on grammar or spelling. It is proposed that the kids have autocorrect and don’t need formal grammar in middle school. They should be reading more! Never mind that without an understanding of grammar, they certainly can’t understand literature.

    • “A hill to die on”
      Should not that be “A hill on which to die.” ?

      Never use a preposition with which to end a sentence.

      If the English had only kept their Subjects as objects these degradations to proper word usage might not be so revolting.

  6. Just how churlish would it be of me to point out that you meant “pidgin-English” in your essay, not “pigeon-English”?

    I am a product of a Catholic grade school in the 1950s.

  7. I recall getting chastised by English teachers in the 1960’s if I did not use proper grammar either when submitting written papers or giving oral presentations. It seems that ever since then things have been in a gradual decline, having decelerated during the 90’s and especially in the early 20th Century. I blame a combination of poor teaching coupled with “texting” or other abbreviated communication methods that became popular following the turn of the century.

    Nineteenth Century telegraph operators had good reason to use truncated communication methods because they had limited amounts of time to receive and forward messages. BUT they also knew how to translate their telegraphy-specific verbiage into plain English so they could hand their customers clearly readable transmittals. No more. Now these so-called “texting” or other social media truncations have become so common place that some young folks don’t even know how to spell the words the “texts” represent.

  8. I shudder every time I hear “me and him went…” or something similar, using objective instead of subjective and the “me” coming before the other. I had several great grammar teachers including my mother who learned English in English school in pre-WWII Czechoslovakia. I think grammar isn’t even taught, or how can popular writers and book editors even miss these? I feel our language has lost the battle.

  9. I spent my early years in DoD schools abroad. The teachers, save for a few Southerners, had soft Midwestern accents. All of them spent good parts of the school year teaching and reinforcing the skill of diagramming sentences. That sentence containing “he’s too good of a …” would immediately have its error revealed had it been subjected to a diagram. Perhaps those drills should be brought back.

    • I did sentence diagramming too and liked it since it helped me understand the details of sentence structure. Current teachers need to speak on what they see being taught in education departments and encouraged or discouraged by local school administrators, but from what I see, sentence diagramming is rarely taught anymore, or if it is taught, it’s only perfunctory and not enough for most students even to understand why it’s helpful.

      Not sure what years you attended Department of Defense schools overseas, but their reputation today is not good and has not been for decades. Certainly there are exceptions and we should be grateful for them. Some schools have unusually effective administrators and some individual teachers are excellent. However, in general, the whole DoD educational system is handicapped by the inherent problem of high turnover of administrators, teachers, and students.

      Nothing can be done to address student turnover. Our military expects most servicemembers to move every two to three years and there’s no way to avoid the damage and disruption that causes to marriages, to children’s education, to church life, and many other aspects of military family life. There’s no way to get around the fact that military life is hard on servicemembers and hard on their families. Most civilians not only don’t understand, they don’t have any idea what military families go through when a young man and his wife decide to make the military a twenty-plus year career choice, not just a single enlistment for college money through the GI Bill, or to learn a trade, or to see the world, or (the only good reason) to defend the country in uniform wielding the sword of Romans 13.

      Since so many teachers in DoD schools are military wives (and a few husbands of female soldiers) who will only be in the area for two to three years, many good teachers won’t stay long enough to have much of a positive effect on their students and the school. Unfortunately, less-than-good teachers also don’t stay long enough for their problems to be identified, which means weak teachers who would benefit from an older mentor never get that help, and outright bad teachers too often get passed along from DoD school to DoD school, never staying long enough for a principal to put his or her foot down and say, “You simply can’t teach, your students aren’t learning, and we have to fix your problem or get you out of the classroom.”

      It’s true that in some places where the US military has had a decades-long presence dating back to World War II, entire English-speaking retiree communities have grown up with retired and non-retiree but prior service soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who choose to live in a foreign country working as DoD civilians or contractors. That does provide a stable pool of local English-speaking personnel from which schools can draw for their administrative and teaching staff. Still, there are still significant problems, and people who attended DoD schools during the Cold War era may not realize that the massive military cutbacks in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War gutted much of what had taken decades to build in places like Germany.

      I don’t want to paint a horrible picture of DoD schools. Many of the problems mirror those of the civilian public school system and a good case can be made that a lot of DoD schools are better than (or at least are less bad than) major urban public school systems. I do think many teachers in DoD schools do care about serving military families, and care deeply, and are doing what they can despite inherent problems that can’t be fixed.

      But I am very much aware that the rise of Christian schooling and homeschooling associations in military communities happened for a reason. Some of that is for the right reason, i.e., military parents who want a committed Christian education for their children. But Christian schools in military communities, both in the United States and overseas, have plenty of students from families that put their children in Christian schools, or homeschool them, only in part due to religious commitments. A bigger reason is often stricter discipline by Christian schools, a stable teaching staff that has much less turnover, and a perception, sometimes correct and sometimes not, that the Christian schools have more committed teachers. I think the issue of “committed teachers” is better described as “teachers who have been in the school much longer,” and that’s not so much a criticism of the DoD teachers as a recognition that a teacher married to a soldier is going to move regularly and can’t realistically set down roots in any school or community until her husband retires from the military.

      • My family did two deployments to the Philippines in the 50s and 60s at Clark AFB on Luzon. Clark was like an American city with stores, supermarkets, theaters, restaurants, schools and neighborhoods. The Philippines was still getting accustomed to being an independent country instead of a US colony. When our deployments were over, many of us who attended school together overseas also attended the same neighborhood schools near our US bases. During our time on Clark, part of the curriculum was devoted to learning about the host country’s history and culture. The high schools still taught courses like civics and Western civilization. We read Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn uncensored. The high school put on musicals by Gilbert and Sullivan. Perhaps this was before the decades of decline began. My last year in a DoD school was 1964 when I finished the sixth grade. While a few of our teachers were wives of servicemen, many were single men and women who had just finished college. During our time in the military, both US and DoD schools still had prayer and scripture reading every morning. Discipline in both DoD and US schools was often administered by corporal punishment. Boys had to have haircuts and girls could not wear short skirts, pants or jeans to school.

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