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!

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