What does it mean to “be of help”?

The phrase “to be of help” is a construction roughly synonymous with “helpful”. “Of help” is particularly common in formal settings, and has a subtly different meaning and application to the adjective “helpful”. I briefly touched on such “noun of noun” constructions when looking at the phrase “bird of prey” – as this structure can show one noun has the quality of another. But if “helpful” already describes a noun as having the quality of help, what do we use “be of help” for?

What does “to be (of) help” mean?

To start, it’s worth considering the specific meaning of “to be of help”, as it is usually applied in particular settings. It can be used with or without of, and may be used in a negative way. There are number of stock phrases you are likely to see in settings such as business correspondence or hospitality. Here are some examples:

  • How can I be of help?
  • Sorry we couldn’t be more help.
  • The tour guide was no help at all.

In all these cases, the suggestion is that the help provided, or not, is specific to a certain circumstance – most likely a single instance of assistance. Context is therefore important, as we are using the noun help as a shorthand to refer to such specific assistance.

  • How can I be of help (with your visit to our hotel today)?
  • Sorry we couldn’t be more help (with your enquiry about booking an appointment).
  • The tour guide was no help at all (when I asked what the sign meant).

We use various forms of “to be of help”, therefore, when referring to an understood and specific instance of help. Helpful, on the other hand, is a general adjective, that can refer instead to a person’s willingness to help in general. When faced with formal settings or when discussing specific incidents requiring help, helpful is less appropriate because it refers more to attitude. Consider the difference in the two questions:

  • How can I be of help?
  • How can I be helpful?

The first is an offer to provide specific assistance, usually related to a particular task. The second is a question of demonstrating willingness to help. In fact, we might say that by asking How can I be of help? a person is already demonstrating they are helpful. Now consider these two scenarios:

  • The tour guide was no help when I asked what the sign meant.
  • The tour guide was not helpful when I asked what the sign meant.

In this case, the first sentence tells us the tour guide provided no specific help, whereas in the second sentence the tour guide demonstrated a lack of willingness to help. It would be possible to be helpful, willing to help, without actually helping.

  • The tour guide read the words out many times, but he was no help in actually explaining what they meant. (helpful, but not actually of help)

The reverse could also be true, that someone might successfully be of help in a specific situation without actually being helpful by nature:

  • The tour guide was a lot of help in locating our hotel, but only after we gave him an extra £20. (provided help, but not by virtue of helpfulness)

Hopefully this goes some way to exploring the differences between these very closely related phrases, if you’ve got any questions do let me know!

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth (Book Review)

Here’s something for anyone who really wants to go beyond the basics of English. Having recently released Advanced Writing Skills for Students of English, I’ve had a few readers share comments that while they see the value in a clear and simple writing approach they also love long sentences and creative use of English. Once you’re able to write flawless advanced English, what structures and styles can be used to really stand out? How do turns of phrase and idiomatic or poetic language that doesn’t fit the rules work? The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth is an excellent introduction to such ideas.

Forsyth aims to revive a study of rhetoric, the many rules (or, rather, recorded patterns) for very specific, very advanced language techniques. His starting point is the suggestion that Shakespeare was not merely a very talented writer, but a diligent student of the language. Shakespeare used rhetorical devices very deliberately and would have studied them as strategic rules, much as foreign learners have to study the basic rules of English.

Some of the ideas The Elements of Eloquence expand on concepts found in my ELB books, referring to the flexibility of rules and matters of style. Rhetoric puts names to these ideas, such as hyperbaton, the practice of creating sentences that do not fit the usual word order expectations. Some are structural, others more poetic, such as synaesthesia, the cross-application of senses  (e.g. Hanslick’s quote, criticising Tchaikovsky, “this music stinks to the ear”). There are some 39 such rhetorical devices covered in the book.

This book is lightly written, making the subject accessible and giving an easy summary of the ideas. It goes beyond the ordinary in English writing (and general usage) to explain why many supposed errors may actually be deliberate (particularly consider enallage, a deliberate grammatical mistake), and how very unusual sentences work. It won’t necessarily tell you exactly when you can get away with using these devices, as they are very nuanced, but it will raise your awareness of them.

Such incredibly specific techniques in English are ideas I would like to explore myself, as a future instructive guide for foreign learners, but it makes me happy that a book like this already exists, providing a window into a fascinating and rarely discussed area. If you’d like to give it a read, check out The Elements of Eloquence here.

“There is a lot of” vs “There are a lot of”

there is are a lot ofDo we say “There is a lot…” or “There are a lot of…”? This question was put to me recently by a student who noted that “lot” is the first noun after a verb. In theory, the verb should be singular with “a lot of”, because it is a singular “lot”. Comparing “There are a lot of apples.” and “There is a lot of apples.”, this sounds incorrect, however. Why? Continue reading

How to use hyphens in English

how to use hyphens

A hyphen is this short punctuation mark: . Not to be confused with longer dashes, which have different uses. Hyphens are used in English for two specific purposes – hard hyphens join words together, while soft hyphens divide words. The uses of hyphens can depend on certain styles, but generally they are used in the patterns laid out below. Continue reading

Recognising verb constructions following “to be”

to be verb formsThe verb “to be” can be used in descriptive clauses or as an auxiliary verb to create certain grammatical structures, such as the continuous tenses and the passive voice. This can lead to confusion when a verb or verb form follows the verb “to be” – how do you recognise which structure is being used? Consider this example: “The museum is supposed to be _______ in the morning.” (open) Opening would form the continuous tense, open would be an adjective form, opened would form a passive sentence. Each of these could be arguably correct – so how do we know the difference? Continue reading

Different Genres of Fiction to Read

different genres of fiction listWhen I’m not writing about the English language, I’m busy writing creative fiction (if you’d like to see my books, check here). Reading fiction is a great way to learn English, if you can find an area that engages and entertains you. And it’s possible to find examples of English writing at all levels in different genres. The starting point, though, is to identify the genres available to you, so you can find something that you personally enjoy. I’ve prepared a vocabulary list to help introduce the different genres of fiction, demonstrated below with examples of popular books in the genre. (Personally, I write in dystopian and contemporary fantasy genres – which are sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy.) Continue reading

When can we use “not so” instead of “not as” for comparatives

comparatives not as so

A recent question I’ve had is which comparative form is more correct, using so or as: “England is not as hot as France” or “England is not so hot as France”. It’s an interesting point as they are both possible so neither is really more correct – and one of my reference books covers it in one simple point “After not, we can use so … as instead of as … as.” This doesn’t give you much room for discussion! So, do the two forms differ? Continue reading

Bird of prey and other “noun of noun” constructions

bird of prey noun phrasesSubjects formed with multiple nouns connected by of can mean consisting of, or taken from, for example ‘piece of cake’, but can also mean belonging to, or with the purpose of, such as ‘father of the bride’. ‘Bird of prey’ can be confusing, though, because it seems to have the opposite meaning – bird of prey may sound like it belongs to prey, but actually it is a predator. So how do these different examples work? Continue reading

What’s the correct date format for business letters?

correct date format business lettersIn my article on the different formats for dates in UK and US English, there are plenty of rules and variations – some covered very briefly. Across business letters and other correspondence you may find uses that you do not recognise (or did not notice) in that list. For example if someone uses November 22nd, 2016 – a less common form. The question is what is the correct form to use in writing? Continue reading

2 Examples of Troublesome Dictionary Definitions

troublesome dictionary definitionsThe rules given in reference books, and indeed dictionaries, can sometimes be rather misleading, or represent incomplete ideas. As I teach (and study!) advanced language use, I often have to question reference guides, and have recently encountered two examples of this. To show how the dictionary does not always tell the whole truth, here are some additional considerations for this/next and the not only…but also rule. Continue reading