What’s Of Got to Do With It?

I’ve never seen an episode of “Hoarders,” but I can imagine the person-height stacks of stuff lining the walls and halls. Its collectors are well-intentioned. Perhaps like my father, they have saved every grocery bag – paper and plastic ­– though never once put them to household use, or maybe a teacher has preserved assignments in case an unruly parent should quibble over a grade that swung the child’s GPA lower than a limbo pole.

Yet we do similar things in our writing and never even notice it.

You’ve no doubt heard my rants about the worthlessness of “that” and “very,” but today’s target is an even smaller offender: “of.”

This little bugger slips into sentences in a way that qualifies the noun of whatever we’re talking about. For example:

  • The babe was now cradled in the loving arms of his mother.
  • Where would this hatred of Valerie’s end?
  • The rays of the sun mocked her as they danced along the ceiling.
  • She lifted the teapot off of the table.

But what might happen if I challenge you to tighten these sentences by removing “of”…

The quick, and often most powerful fix is to move what followed “of” in front of the noun it was amplifying.

  • The babe was now cradled in the loving arms of his mother

BECOMES

  • The babe was now cradled in his mother’s loving arms.

Feel the difference? It subtracts two small words – “of” and “the” – and ends the sentence more powerfully.

  • Where would this hatred of Valerie’s end?

BECOMES

  • Where would Valerie’s hatred end?

No contest, right?

Sometimes the “of” offender comes at the beginning of the sentence (or should I say, “the sentence’s beginning”?? HA!).

  • The rays of the sun mocked her as they danced along the ceiling.

BECOMES

  • The sun’s rays mocked her as they danced along the ceiling

The solution works exactly the same in that case.

But here’s my favorite spot for a quick word-lift. It happens in combination with “off.” In speech we say, “knock the mud off of your shoes,” or “wipe that grin off of your face.” But removing “of” won’t require us to change a single other thing. We get the immediate benefit, and don’t have to think too hard. (Always a plus when writing un-caffeinated.)

  • She lifted the teapot off of the table

BECOMES

  • She lifted the teapot off the table

Of course, you don’t have to go overboard and eradicate all the “of”s. I’m not suggesting its total extinction. Rather, I’d like you to have one more weapon in your word-smithing arsenal so that what remains on your page is both intentional and powerful.

What great word tricks have you discovered?

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