that of

In the past few days, I keep seeing people misuse the phrase "that of" in the same kind of way, apparently for emphasis. Like this:

* My primary concern is that of earthquakes.

Where the speaker meant to say that their primary concern is earthquakes themselves; but that's not what "that of earthquakes" means.

Here's one possible way to test whether you've incorrectly put "that of" in a sentence that has the structure "My A is that of B":

  1. Replace "that of" with "the A of". (* "My primary concern is the concern of earthquakes.") Or replace "that of B" with "the same A as B's". (* "My primary concern is the same concern as earthquakes's.")
  2. If the sentence doesn't read smoothly, then you've probably misused "that of."

The problem with the above test is that there are some borderline-inappropriate uses that pass the test:

* My subject tonight is that of grammar.

* The company's core business is that of computer graphics.

In both cases, you could argue that the sentence is correct, and both cases sort of pass my above test: "My subject tonight is the subject of grammar"; "The company's core business is the business of computer graphics." But in both cases, the "that of" is redundant.

So here's another test, probably better: just cut "that of" from the sentence, and see if the sentence still makes sense; if it does, then you were probably misusing "that of."

I think there's a subject/object confusion at the heart of the misuse; in the standard use of "that of," the B in the phrase "that of B" is a person or organization that owns (or to which can be attributed) the thing named by A.

Here's an example of how to use "that of" correctly:

His premise was that of Newton: that matter and energy are distinct.

In other words, his premise was the same as Newton's premise.

I imagine this is yet another case where my prescriptivist side will have to learn to live with the new phrasing; I suspect it's becoming more widespread over time. But it bugs me.

Of course, for all I know, the usage I'm objecting to has been around longer than I have; I don't currently have any easy way to check on that. If any of you know, let me know.

(Wrote this back in March, but neglected to post it.)

One Response to “that of”

  1. Shmuel

    I find this very interesting, and thank you for bringing this subject to my attention; I’d never thought about this particular usage before. With that said, I completely disagree with your conclusion. 🙂

    At first I was going to defend the “misuse” of that of on purely idiomatic grounds, before realizing that there was no need to; it makes perfect sense on a logical basis. Your analysis takes of as being a possessive. While this is one use for the word, of is a ridiculously flexible word, to the point where Evans and Evans claim that it’s essentially meaningless in itself. In the case you most object to, the sense of of meaning “about” or “concerning” is the relevant one.

    To take your first example, you parse “My primary concern is that of earthquakes.” as logically meaning “My primary concern is that which is possessed by earthquakes.” I would contend that it actually makes perfect sense as “My primary concern is that which concerns earthquakes.”

    I do agree with your feeling that this construction is logically redundant, and as a matter of style, I would agree that this is a clear violation of Strunk and White’s “omit needless words.” On the other hand, I think that’s more or less the point here. There are oratorical registers in which using two words when one can use five instead is practically a sin. I would contend that this usage of that of is a marker that one is speaking in such a register, and that the subject in question is to be accorded added weight as a result.

    Moving to the idiomatic level, for me the major test of any usage is “Is the intended meaning clear, or is it ambiguous?” I think the disputed usage above passes with flying colors. (It actually takes me a fraction of a second longer to parse your example of the “correct” usage of that of, though I grant that it makes perfect sense, and that I have seen the phrase used that way. But the first usage is what I’d have considered the more typical one.)

    One thing that does fascinate me is that I don’t see this directly addressed in any of the references I have on hand. (Admittedly a small subset of my shelves; most of my books are now in storage, but I checked most of my usual standbys.) I’m wondering if this is, in fact, a recent usage, or just one taken for granted.

    …okay, the top hit on Google for “that of” usage turns up Strunk — of Strunk and White fame — “misuing” that of in 1918: “In the example above, the relation is that of cause and result.” (This falls into your “borderline-inappropriate” category.) I’d still like to see more, but I’m going with the “taken for granted” hypothesis. Which is just as fascinating.


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