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As I'm preparing my GMAT test, I see the "be of" structure very frequently. for example

By 1940, the pilot Jacqueline Cochran held seventeen official national and international speed records, earned at a time when aviation was still so new that many of the planes she flew were of dangerously experimental design.

This really bothers me as it contradicts the conclusion from the post Meaning and usage of "be of", because in GMAT writings the "be of" looks very flexible. I find it's very difficult to understand sometime, but I know these are really fine and efficient writings.

I guess my question was, in this case, can you get rid of the "of" and what the usage of it here? If I take off the "of" here, does it modify the meaning of this sentence?

By 1940, the pilot Jacqueline Cochran held seventeen official national and international speed records, earned at a time when aviation was still so new that many of the planes she flew were dangerously experimental design.

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Are you changing it here to dangerously experimentally designed? If not, why the bolded ed? The rephrasing I just asked about is rather clunky. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jun 16 '12 at 22:00
    
yea.. never mind.I changed it back –  user22439 Jun 16 '12 at 22:00
    
Saw your edit; that rephrasing doesn't work. You are now describing the planes as design and not planes. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jun 16 '12 at 22:02
    
Use the plural designs; that makes it a noun and a metaphorical one at that. –  John Lawler Jun 16 '12 at 22:04
    
you are right. I realized it too and tried to change to "experimentally designed" –  user22439 Jun 16 '12 at 22:07

7 Answers 7

up vote 0 down vote accepted

The point is that the designs (and the resulting planes) were experimental to the extent that they were dangerous.

By 1940, the pilot Jacqueline Cochran held seventeen official national and international speed records, earned at a time when aviation was still so new that many of the planes she flew were dangerously experimentally designed.

Two adverbs can be rather awkward, and you could rephrase the quote as follows.

By 1940, the pilot Jacqueline Cochran held seventeen official national and international speed records, earned at a time when aviation was still so new that the designs of many of the planes she flew were dangerously experimental.

I prefer this construction to the original. In the original, and your suggestion, we are kept waiting to reach the important word design. In this last version the processing of ideas in design — planes — dangerously experimental seems easier to me.

It's interesting to note that this sentence is clearer with the plural designs whereas the original in the question doesn't need it. Using design in my version could imply a single design for all her planes; to do that in the original quote one would say "were of a dangerously experimental design".

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Your second suggestion seems to mix singular and plural: presumably there was one design for each plane. –  TimLymington Jun 16 '12 at 22:21
    
@TimLymington: Thanks. It's getting late. –  Andrew Leach Jun 16 '12 at 22:30

This is a different phemomenon from the one discussed in the "Meaning and usage of "be of" post. That one describes a set of idiomatic predicate prepositional phrases -- be of assistance/service/use/help -- that have special pragmatic uses.

This phenomenon is a headless relative clause that happens to have a prepositional phrase. If you put back all the stuff that has been left out and unwind the transformations you get something like

  • ... the planes that she flew were planes that were of dangerously experimental design.

That-deletion results in

  • ... the planes she flew ...

and Whiz-deletion results in

  • ... the planes she flew were planes of dangerously experimental design.

And, since planes just occurred a few words back, it gets deleted here, producing a headless relative clause meaning "[ones that are] of dangerously experimental design". These are all optional, and unordered, and independent, like most syntax.

English deletes a lot of stuff from relative clauses, producing sentences that look like other sentences with very different uses and conventions.

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The other question concerns the usage of be of + <noun>.

The structure in your quotation is different: it’s be + <adjective>. Here the of makes a compound adjective from the noun phrase “dangerously experimental design”.

Your proposed modification removes the of to leave be + <noun> – which is fine in principle but incorrect in this instance because you end up with a plural verb (were) that doesn’t agree with the singular noun (design).

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As noted in comments, "...many of the planes she flew were dangerously experimental design" is not coherent: it says, in short, "planes were design". The original form, "...many of the planes she flew were of dangerously experimental design", is well-formed – were of is an elliptical way to say were constructed using. Thus, it means the planes were constructed using "dangerously experimental" designs.

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No, you can't reword the sentence as you suggest: you need an adjective (or adjectival phrase), and design is a noun. There are a few possible alternatives (...were designed in a dangerously experimental way, or the designs of the planes were experimental, for example), but none as good.

The use is simple description. I am a citizen of the world; He is a man of substance; This is a plane of (an) experimental design.

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If you take out the of, you must modify the sentence:

…many of the planes she flew were dangerously designed.
…many of the planes she flew were dangerously experimental.
…many of the planes she flew had dangerously experimental designs.
…she flew dangerously experimental planes.

but, to end the sentence with dangerously experimental design, a preposition is needed:

…many of the planes she flew were of dangerously experimental design.

In this wording, the adjective experimental modifies design (the object of the preposition), and the adverb dangerously modifies experimental.

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You could say something like this:

By 1940, the pilot Jacqueline Cochran held seventeen official national and international speed records, earned at a time when aviation was still so new that many of the planes she flew were dangerously experimental in terms of design.

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