Q: It drives me nuts to hear things like "It wasn't too good of a game." Is this usage ever correct? —Cynthia Ashworth, Granby, Conn.
A: The unnecessary "of" occurs quite often in spoken English, but all usage authorities condemn its use in formal written English. That sentence should be written as "It wasn't too good a game."
In a 1997 poll, 68 percent of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel disapproved of the sentence "That's too long of a movie to sit through," (though they did say that "of a" could be excused if the movie was "Ishtar").
So why do people continue to insert the needless "of"?
Saying "of a" seems natural because we use the phrase so often in other phrases, e.g., "sort of a problem," "two of a kind," "a heck of a game." And the natural ONE-two-three stress pattern of "It WASn't that GOOD of a "GAME" makes it easier to say than "It WASn't that GOOD a GAME."
Q: I was taught to say "different from." It seems most people say "different than." Is each correctly used in different contexts? —Donna Mottilla, Hampton, Va.
A: Yes. "Different from" is the correct phrase when comparing something to a noun ("The movie seems different from the book"), or to a noun phrase ("The movie seems different from the book in the library") or to a gerund ("The movie seems different from reading the book").
But when the object of comparison is expressed as a full clause, "than" is the correct choice ("The movie seems different than it did 20 years ago").
Q: How would you treat the term "social media" (which encompasses Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc.)? "Media" is plural, so does "social media" take a plural verb, or can you think of it as a collective noun and use a singular verb? —Sue Fracasso, Kensington, Conn.
A: During the 1980s, when "media" referred to a monolithic group of established newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets, people started using the plural "media" as a singular, e.g., "The media is obsessed with this story." Many usage authorities condemned this as a misuse.
But now that methods of communication have diversified to include cell phones, blogs, emails and the social sites you mentioned, "media" is being used more frequently (and correctly) as a plural, as in "the social media are proliferating."
So here's a rare example of expanding technology actually encouraging a return to traditional correct usage!
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254