Like an annoying mosquito or gnat spoiling an ideal summer evening, the word “of” often mars an otherwise perfect sentence. In fact, those erroneous “ofs” are so easy to miss, they crop up frequently in books, newspapers, and magazines––and certainly in our everyday speech. But if we commit to editing with a search-and-destroy approach, we can eliminate the unwanted “ofs” in our writing.
The three hiding places
The solution is simple. We just need to check whether the preposition “of” is needed after three other prepositions we use regularly: “inside,” “outside,” and “off.” Let’s illustrate.
Allie’s new home sits inside of the city limits.
Hallie likes having the coffee maker right outside of her office.
Sally has lived off of her pension for 20 years.
In how many of those sentences should we reach for the bug spray? Right! All of them. We really meant to write this:
Allie’s new home sits inside the city limits.
Hallie likes having the coffee maker right outside her office.
Sally has lived off her pension for 20 years.
The exceptions for idioms
So every time we spot “of” after “inside,” “outside,” or “off,” we should use the bug spray, correct? Sorry. Not so fast. We need to allow for the correct use of “inside of” as a figure of speech meaning “in less than” or “fewer than.”
If we don’t hit much more traffic, we’ll arrive inside of an hour. (Meaning “in less than.”)
She estimates that inside of 10 contracts won’t be renewed. (Meaning “fewer than.”)
And we need to allow for the correct use of “outside of” meaning “except” or “except for.”
Everyone enjoyed the seminar outside of Eric. (Meaning “except.”)
Outside of regular maintenance, I had no car expenses this year. (Meaning “except for.”)
So there you have it. “Off of” would never be correct, but “inside of” and “outside of” are correct on occasion as figures of speech. Generally, however, “inside” and “outside” do not need a wingman. Now that you’re armed with understanding and bug spray, go get ’em.
Postscript. Scanning a list of prepositions, I identified one more––used far less often––that could be followed by a useless “of”: “opposite.” So instead of writing “opposite of the drug store,” we want to write “opposite the drug store.”
In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml.