Oblivious to or of?

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A reader wonders why, “In modern usage, we hear…‘oblivious to’ more than we hear the correct usage.”

Writing about oblivious in 1926, H. W. Fowler felt that the word was “badly misused”:

1. Its right sense is no longer aware or no longer mindful; it is not simply unaware or unconscious or insensible.

2. Even when the word might bear its true sense of forgetful (as opposed to unaware), it is often followed by the wrong preposition (to). —Modern English Usage

Both of Fowler’s objections have been invalidated by time. Although oblivious is still used in the sense of forgetfulness, its usual sense nowadays is “unaware or unconscious of,” and either of or to is acceptable to use with it.

Some SAT preparation sites list of as the only option with oblivious, but others indicate that either of or to is acceptable. (The SAT is a battery of tests taken by high school students who intend to apply to university.)

The earliest documentation in the OED of the use of “oblivious to” in the sense of unaware is dated 1854: “The anti-reformer in Ireland is just as oblivious to the existence or the curability of evils there.”

Oblivious can be used without a preposition:

He’s the most oblivious man I’ve ever met.
Women Have a Sixth Sense, Men Are Oblivious

In cryptology, an “oblivious transfer protocol” is “a type of protocol in which a sender transfers one of potentially many pieces of information to a receiver, but remains oblivious as to what piece (if any) has been transferred.” Here oblivious means unaware.

In computing, there is something called a “cache-oblivious algorithm.” I’ve no intention of trying to explain that one.

Fowler concluded his entry on oblivious by suggesting that speakers could avoid problems by choosing a more common word to begin with:

The making of these mistakes is part of the price paid by those who reject the homely word, avoid the obvious, and look about for the imposing: forgetful, unaware, unconscious, unmindful, and insensible, while they usually give the meaning more precisely, lay no traps.

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10 thoughts on “Oblivious to or of?”

  1. Obviate the word “oblivious”? No way! My friends know me as the Queen of Oblivion. I do not watch TV, read newspapers, go online for news or keep up on much. I have neither the time nor the inclination. They know that if a bomb went off or a hurricane is coming, someone had better call me to tell me (as they did when 9/11 happened) because otherwise I will be oblivious of/to it.
    As far as which preposition to use with it, I guess I can go with using either one. They both sound OK to my ears, although I was schooled that “of” was the correct one.

  2. I usually combine it with the word that makes the most sense depending on how I’m using the word – most often I’m using it to mean “unaware”, and I would never pair “unaware” with to. So I almost exclusively pair “oblivious” with of. I also learnt that pairing it with the word to was incorrect.

  3. I suppose if you consider its meaning to be “unaware”, “have become unaware”, or even “forgetful”, then *of* is the only preposition that makes sense. You wouldn’t say you were unaware to something, or forgetful to the fact of something. I don’t think I’ve ever inferred or used oblivious to mean forgetful, so that is a new one to me. I’ve always thought it to mean unaware but sometimes depending on context, with an additional connotation of judgment. E.g., being unaware of something one should, in theory at least, be aware of. So you would say someone is oblivious of his friends’ feelings, or oblivious of the consequences of his actions, but not that he is oblivious of his aunt in Junction City. But maybe that is reading too much into it. I’ll stick with oblivious of, consciously, but I’m sure I’ll be oblivious to my backsliding.

  4. I believe that “oblivion” is a much more useful word than “oblivious” is.
    Sometimes I find myself going about in a state of oblivion, but not very often.
    For some people, existing in a state of oblivion is their routine thing!
    Briefly, they are the ones who think that 2 + 2 = 5, and H2O is beer.

  5. D.A.W.,

    2+2 does = 5, for very large values of 2, and Town Hall Black H2O Oatmeal Stout is a beer. 😉

    Considering ‘blind to’ would be an acceptable alternative, but so would ‘unaware of’, I’d agree that usage should fit the context.

    I, personally, would use ‘to’ when someone is distracted, and ‘of’ when someone is clueless.

  6. This word continues to drive me crazy, and here’s why: Whether it is being used to mean “forgetful,” “unaware” or “unmindful,” wouldn’t the natural preposition to follow be “of”? After all, one is not unmindful, forgetful or unaware TO something but rather OF something.

    Where am I going wrong here?


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