Prepositional Idioms with “of”

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The other day I read a letter supposedly written by a literature professor. It contained what struck me as the unidiomatic use of the preposition to attached to the adjective ignorant.

Note: An expression is idiomatic when its meaning is not deducible from the meanings of the individual words. In idiomatic usage, the exact same words can have different meanings, depending upon context. Take, for example, the phrasal verb “put out”:

  • put out the light (extinguish)
  • put out the cat (place outside)
  • put out your hand (extend)

ESL learners spend hours memorizing dependent prepositions and the words they appear with because few dependable rules exist to explain the usage. We’re angry with a person, but angry about an injustice. We’re concerned about our children, but concerned with the ecological movement. I don’t remember having been taught these patterns. I just know what “sounds right.”

The dependent preposition I’ve always heard used with the adjective ignorant is of:

He was ignorant of the consequences of his actions.

For this reason, I was startled to read what the literature professor wrote:

I specialize in literature, feminism, and cultural criticism (so naturally I would be ignorant to something that got 700,000 views).

Note: the professor was being sarcastic. Of course she knew about whatever it was that “got 700,000 views.”

My impulse was to condemn the unidiomatic usage “ignorant to” without further ado, but then I recalled the way “bored of” has spread in recent years.

To me, “bored of” is horribly unidiomatic, but since writing an unforgiving post about it, I’ve seen on Google N-Gram Viewer that the appearance of “bored of” in printed books has risen precipitately since the 1980s. Further, according to the Oxford Dictionaries online site, “the Oxford English Corpus contains almost twice as many instances of “bored of” than “bored by.”

Clearly my knee-jerk reaction to unidiomatic preposition use bears examination.

I did a web search. Sure enough, “ignorant to” is out there in blog postings and reader comments:

Why are people… so ignorant to the facts?
I think he’s ignorant to the fact that they both wanted it
People just are ignorant to the fact that system files use up that space too.
Torres seems ignorant to the danger he is in.

So far, “ignorant to” is still rare in modern usage compared to “bored of.”

By the way, although the folks at Oxford acknowledge the popularity of “bored of,” they also acknowledge that it’s still not considered to be standard English: “It’s best to avoid using it in formal writing.”

When it comes to which preposition to use with which adjective, the spirit of the language will decide. Meanwhile, careful writers and speakers may wish to review current prepositional use and use the established patterns.

To get you started, here are a few examples of adjectives that take the preposition of:

accuse of: The homeless man was accused of vandalizing a park bench.
acquitted of: When more evidence came to light, the man was acquitted of the charge.
capable of: Unsocialized children are capable of atrocious behavior.
censorship of: Throughout history, governments and religious institutions have advocated the censorship of books.
consist of: Krapp’s diet consisted of bananas and water.
convince (someone) of: You’ll never convince him of the truth of your argument.
critical of: He is critical of everything I write.
deprive of: Millions of children grow up deprived of ordinary comforts.
disapprove of: Some people make it a policy to disapprove of everything they didn’t think of first.
jealous of: Some men are jealous of the success of their wives.
kind of: What kind of books do you like to read?
regardless of: The soldiers were required to shave, regardless of their wishes.
required of: Familiarity with standard English is required of all applicants.
short of: I can’t go to the movies because I’m short of cash.
take charge of: Adolescents are encouraged to take charge of their learning.
unmindful of: The wounded man staggered aimlessly, unmindful of traffic.
worthy of: This writing is worthy of a professional novelist.

And, let’s not forget,
ignorant of: Many native English speakers seem to be ignorant of established prepositional use that ESL learners struggle to master.

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17 thoughts on “Prepositional Idioms with “of””

  1. I would question whether the lit. professor was a Brit. I’ve seen them use “to” in a lot of situations where American usage would be “of” or “from.” For example, they say “a motorbike is different to a car.”

    Then again, not everybody who claims to be a literature professor really is one. I saw a tv show a while back where a guy who was supposedly a professor of literature said “where did you study at?” I was eating at the time and nearly spewed forth my dinner.

  2. This interesting article identifies and underscores a point with which all those devoted to preserving and promoting good English should be concerned. Our so-called living language is more often affected by the ignorant than by the well educated. It’s Gresham’s Law applied to English, bad English rapidly gains currency among the ignorant.

    For every James Joyce, there are thousands of rough speakers in bowling shirts adding all sorts of misunderstandings to the language. Who’s going to have a greater effect?, Joyce through stream-of-consciousness or Joe Lunchbox with “hone in on,” “real-u-tur,” “alright,” “alot,” and “get ahold of”?

    Whether “ignorant to” will survive or not is unimportant compared to the slow degradation of English by the ignorant, including the supposedly well-educated.

    Yesterday, Laura Sydell, an NPR journalist on “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition,” “Weekend Edition” and “NPR.org” mispronounced “irreparable” in one of her reports. Ms Sydell graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree from William Smith College in Geneva, New York, and earned a J.D. from Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law. After finishing a one-year fellowship with the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, Sydell went to San Francisco as a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley.

    With all that education, Ms Sydell can’t pronounce “irreparable.” That’s pathetic; however, she’s not unique in that respect. Most NPR journalists routinely mispronounce homographs, e.g., PROtest for proTEST, INcrease for inCREASE, COMbat for comBAT, and so on.

    Ignorant speakers corrupt English every day with similar blunders and those blunders are repeated by those who are poorly educated and by those who think they’re well educated. Eventually, those blunders pervade the language and posterity suffers.

  3. I agree with ‘ignorant of’ being the most common prepositional phrase as in ‘ignorant of’ the consequences but what about someone who is too ‘ignorant to’ know the difference? Too stupid to understand…to fat to get into a size ten…too difficult to imagine?

    Similarly, we have ‘kind of’ as in ‘What kind of fruit do you like?’ but we also have ‘kind to’ as in ‘She is kind to animals.”

    Also, take ‘required of’ as in the example quoted: Familiarity with standard English is required of all applicants. That is passive voice. Change it to active voice and you need ‘required to’: All applicants are required to have familiarity/be familiar with the English language.

    It is a ‘lot to’ grasp for new learners because English has a ‘lot of idioms and expressions. That’s what I call the color of the language and what makes it challenging but also fun!


  4. To Maeve:
    I don’t remember having been taught these patterns. I just know what “sounds right.”

    The things that you mentioned are not “taught” in any kind of a formal way.** They are things that small children in English-speaking homes learn as part of the process of learning language. They learn the idiomatic use of prepositions, right along with learning which verbs are irregular and which verbs are regular, and how to handle the irregular verbs. Note that I said “learning language” on purpose, and not “learning English” – because the same thing happens with children who are growing up in French, German, Japanese, Korean, Navajo, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Turkish, etc.

    **Maybe you need to take a college course in child development? I never have, but my father did while he was earning his doctorate in education. He has said that taking that course was a real eye-opener to him. Also, my father had already helped raise a son and a daughter (my sister and me) before he went back to graduate school for his doctorate, yet still he learned a lot about children from taking that course.

  5. Matt,

    I am a native English speaker, who earned multiple degrees; yet, I struggle with English. In school, English class focused on book analysis and essays, but overlooked grammar. Only the very basics of grammar were study. Where can one, who wishes to speak good English acquired this knowledge? I hope to start a mathematics blog, but I am very insecure about my writing.

  6. I taught at a small technical college in Maryland during 1988 – 92, and one of the students was the husband of one of our faculty members – one who taught English and the social sciences. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name, but his wife was Trish, and Trish’s husband was studying computer engineering. He earned his B.S. there**.

    Trish’s husband was born and raised in Indonesia, and he was of Indonesian blood, but he had moved to the United States about 17 years earlier. He told us that his parents spoke Dutch at home, but out in the town and at school, everyone spoke Indonesian. Hence, he learned both languages. Then he might have taken English at school, too, but he had to learn English when he moved to the U.S.A.

    Trish’s husband told us that he spoke Broken Dutch, Broken Indonesian, and Broken English!
    Of course, I found this admission to be very amusing, but I was sympathetic with his problem. He’s a fine gentleman.

    So with his mixed background, he did not speak any language fluently, but it was clear that he understood English a lot better than he spoke it. He also read and wrote English very well because at that school, the students had to write a lot of reports and they had to study textbooks in English.

  7. **That private school had very liberal educational benefits.
    The children and spouses of faculty members and administrators could go to school there without paying tuition. This is somewhat common at private colleges and universities in the United States.

    Trish’s husband was interested in taking some courses in computer engineering, but he had taken a lot of college courses elsewhere – available for transfer. He sat down with the registrar, and she figured out that if he went to school there for just two years, he could get his B.S. degree. Thus, he decided to go for it!

  8. OMG I’m almost sorry I came back to read all the comments here. Too much!
    1. @ DAW: “Sympathetic with”? Or “Sympathetic to”?
    2. I sometimes say I’m short of cash, (in fact, I say it quite often because it’s true), but I can be short on cash, short on patience (quite often as well), and short on a lot of other things. And, I’m just plain short.
    3. @Matt: I resent the bowling-shirts thing. I have loved bowling all my life since I was wee (and have been in leagues, although I have never worn an actual bowling shirt). There are plenty of proper-English-speaking bowlers just as there are many crappy-English-speaking doctors. Believe me, I KNOW. I hear it every day, all day.
    4. @Bob Taylor: Your examples are not parallel to this post’s focus. Your examples are not prepositional phrases. I’m not the maven on this (like Mahogany, my knowledge of grammar is very basic), but it seems to me that your examples include verbs, adverbs and adjectives. What KIND of fruit do you like is not the same as being KIND to animals. I can’t explain it well, which is why Maeve has a job (and does it so well).

    Before I sign off here, I would like to put forth a pet peeve of mine: The expression “OFF OF.” Noooooooooo!!!!!

  9. Good topic, Maeve. I guess idioms, by definition, don’t follow any rules so have to be taught by memorization if they are taught at all. There are whole references dedicated to what words take what prepositions, but obviously that is not enough. *Ignorant to* seems almost as bad as *bored of*, which is simply sounds moronic. Why would anyone not care about sounding like a moron? It doesn’t help with most things. One I here more and more often is *on accident* and I think it is as disturbing as bored of.

    I generally get ticked at the over-use of *on* as a preoposition. E.g, “I got the information on Beasely” instead of about Beasely, or, “I am doing a study on anteaters” instead of “of anteaters” or “regarding anteaters”. The generic, ubiquitous *on* sounds lazy and inarticulate to me.

    It can actually foul communication. Recently we had an event on a Saturday which commonly referred to as the “Saturday event” or, of course, just “Saturday”. When we told there would be a meeting “on Saturday” it was genuinely misunderstood by some as meaning we would meet on the day commonly called Saturday. In fact, the intent was a meeting held on Friday regarding Saturday’s event. A meeting to which about half the folks showed up. And probably the half with the poorest language skills.

  10. Seconding the thebluebird11 (woud that be correct?). One may sympathIZE with, but is sympathETIC to. What a conveniently placed example.

  11. @ Matt Gafney

    You quote these mispronunciations:

    Most NPR journalists routinely mispronounce homographs, e.g., PROtest for proTEST, INcrease for inCREASE, COMbat for comBAT, and so on.

    In my own usage (British English as opposed American) the stress in these words depends on whether they are used as nouns or verbs.
    eg I want to proTEST about the noise made by the PROtest.
    The INcrease in tuition charges will force students to inCREASE the demands they make on their parents.
    More COMbat forces are needed to comBAT the rise in enemy action.

    I don’t think these examples point to a difference between UK and US pronunciation, but I could be wrong.

  12. @Bob – your revision is still passive. Try “We require all applicants to…” or “All applicants must….”

  13. Does the “of” preposition bore or still bear the genitive meaning in idioms, while “- to” and “- for” idioms would come from dative-bearing latin verbs?

  14. Brit ex-pat here.

    “Off of” <- drives me crazy. Frequently replaceable by either "on" or sometimes "from".

    As in, "Who's that guy? Isn't he the guy off of The Walking Dead?"

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