The New York Times

September 17, 1983, Saturday, Late City Final Edition


BYLINE: By James Bovard;

Op-Ed Page


A single phrase is dangerously close to destroying the remnants of logic and
eloquence in America.

''Of course'' is now the most flagrant offender of all known standards of
literary decency. The further that ''of course'' extends its reign, the lower
the trading value of the English language will fall.

In the past five years, ''of course'' has proliferated far beyond the most
pessimistic forecasts. At its current rate of reproduction, it is only a matter
of time until every sentence begins and ends with ''of course.''

This one phrase has already killed, crippled or maimed half of the worthwhile
sentences east of the Mississippi. There is a Gresham's Law of vocabulary by
which the increasing use of bad or counterfeit literary coinage inevitably
drives out of circulation those phrases with real value. Unless this phrase is
curbed, everybody will soon be talking like politicians.

''Of course'' has become the foundation of contemporary logic, the world's most condensed
syllogism, the most egalitarian form of proof. Using ''of course'' is like going
on the dole, since the author usually assumes he has no obligation to support
his statements. Even if writers do deserve welfare benefits, ''of course'' is
the least efficient system imaginable, as it discourages productivity, corrupts
sentences and requires endless eye work by readers.

Who among us has not kicked the furniture over sentences such as, ''The square root of 539 is, of course,
23.247.'' And equally bedamned are constructions like, ''The sun, of course,
will rise tomorrow.'' ''Of course'' should be banned under the Eighth
Amendment's prohibition of ''cruel and unusual punishment.'' Such a ban may
antagonize the First Amendment: but, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said,
freedom of speech does not give a man the right to yell ''Fire!'' in a crowded
theater. Likewise, freedom of press does not give a man a right to inject ''of
course'' into every third sentence. ''Of course'' is a type of mental
thumbscrew, and we should not stand idly by while millions are repeatedly

I am strictly opposed to capital punishment, except where a serious crime has
been committed. It is not my part to say whether anyone who writes ''of course''
should be automatically quartered. It is difficult to make such a judgment
without knowing the relevant circumstances, such as: Was the author of sound
mind and body? Was he aware of the basic principles of literary decency? Does he
have a long history of molesting his readers? Did some editor sneak the phrase
into the author's work, solely to destroy his reputation? Is there any chance
that the judicial or editorial system could beat such nonesense out of him? The
offender should be given every benefit of the doubt - unless he repeats the
heinous act.

There are always apologists for this sort of thing: Nowadays,
every crime has its defender. Conservatives would insist that any attempt to
reform or replace it could lead to a takeover by a Communist-inspired phrase.
Liberals would insist on setting it free on probation, thus dooming future
generations of readers. Luckily, most people are moderates, who, by now, support
stomping this phrase out of existence.

If ''of course'' cannot be abolished outright, perhaps a Federal law can be
passed to confine it to San Francisco, or maybe Philadelphia. If ''of course''
was constrained to a limited geographical area, it would probably depress
property values and raise the suicide rate, but the rest of the country could
compensate the chosen waste site. Or, perhaps the best solution is to confine
the phrase to the Congressional Record, where it can do no harm.

If we do not strike soon, it will be too late. ''Of course'' is dangerously
near to achieving a majority control over all printed communication. The future
of our pluralist vocabulary is at stake.

Tagline: James Bovard is, of course, a writer.