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“Does ‘all of’ have any legit uses?” A reflection by David Foster Wallace from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

Other than as an ironic idiom for ‘no more than’ (e.g., sex with Edgar lasts all of twenty seconds), does all of have any legit uses? The answer is a qualified, complicated, and personally embarrassed yes. Here’s the story.

An irksome habit of many student writers is to just automatically stick an of between all and any noun that follows.

 all of the firemen posed for the calendar;

she gave the disease to all of her friends

I have spent nearly a decade telling undergrads to abjure this habit, for two reasons. The first is that an excess of of‘s is one of the surest signs of flabby or maladroit writing, and the second is that the usage is often wrong.

Over and over, in conference and class, I have promulgated the following rule: Except for the ironic-idiom case, the only time it’s correct to use all of is when the adjective phrase is followed by a pronoun:

 All of them got pink-eye.

I wanted Edgar to have all of me.

Unless, however, the relevant pronoun is possessive, in which case you must again omit the of, as in:

 All my relatives despise Edgar.

Only a few weeks ago, however, I learned (from a bright student who had gotten annoyed enough at my constant hectoring to start poring over usage guides in the hope of finding something I’d been wrong about that she could raise her hand at just the right moment in class and embarrass me with . . . which she did, and I was, and deserved it—there’s nothing worse than a pedant who’s wrong) that there’s actually one more complication to the first part of the rule. With all plus a noun, it turns out that a medial of is required if the noun is possessive, as in:

 All of Edgar’s problems stem from his childhood

 or

All of Dave’s bombast came back to haunt him that day.

 I doubt now I’ll ever forget this.

-  David Foster Wallace

*****

For the writer in everyone

The above anecdote by celebrated American writer David Foster Wallace  (1962–2008) appeared in the first edition of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus in 2004. It has been reprinted in the newest third edition, now available for purchase.

In addition to 1,000 new synonyms and hundreds of illuminative quotations from literature, history, and popular culture, this latest edition boasts over 200 word reflections from noted authors of fiction and nonfiction, poets, dramatists, musicians, actors, critics, professors of law, linguistics, and psychology, and other prominent word enthusiasts. Each writer has his or her own distinctive voice, and whether a reflection is pithy, contemplative, instructive, or just plain funny, it is always informative.

Take the addendum to Mr. Wallace’s somewhat prescriptive reflection, for example, in which novelist Joshua Ferris notes another usage of all of:

“One colloquial American phrase that seems to demand of after all is the somewhat breathless all of a sudden, which I hate but which is almost unavoidable in everyday speech. Here someone tries to convey blinding surprise in a manner that has the singular effect of depleting all such surprise for the listener/reader. (Listen to this funny story; works similarly in that it instantly kills all comedy.) If it must be used, all of a sudden; is superior to the grosser all the sudden, unless used in dialogue to convey an extreme idiomaticity.”

The great equalizer

It is always fascinating to observe moments in which prominent writers are caught wrestling with their craft, as though they were just like any other person drafting an email, business report, or essay for school. One way to look at the phenomenon is as a kind of Schadenfreude—look at these writers struggle; they’re just like us! Another way is to focus on the language itself and appreciate how the complexities in English usage vex even the most linguistically gifted among us. There’s a power in words—here, a seemingly simple construction used on a daily basis by a majority of English language speakers—to spark debate, inspire writing, and of course, warrant reflection.

To learn more about word reflections and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, play this video: