heard vs. heard of

Here’s a common exchange in class at TestMagic:

  • Ray, do you know what ironic means?
  • ironic? No… But I’ve heard of it.

I’ll confess that the first few times I heard this usage, I imagined a group of people standing around discussing the word ironic: “Hey, Jessie, how about that new word today in class?” “Yeah, that was pretty unexpected. Like when the teacher wrote it up on the board, it looked like iron. I TOTALLY thought the teacher was going to write iron. But then right when the teacher should’ve stopped, he just kept going!” “Yeah! With an i and a c!” “Yeah, that was hecka tight!” “By the way, did you get the definition?” “Definition?? No, I was too busy trying to make anagrams with it.” “Cool word, though, huh?” “Yeah, cool word. It’ll be cool to use it in speech one day.”

Sort of an absurd conversation, right? Well, absurd if you know that the participants are discussing a word. It sounds like they’re discussing… a person, right? Right.

So, here’s the rule:

  • to hear: to perceive a sound (with the auditory senses). In other words, to hear is to perceive with your ears. Example: I heard an airplane fly overhead.

Yes, we all know that one. It’s the next one that’s important.

  • to hear of: to be aware of the existence of someone or something, specifically by being told of the existence of that person or thing by other people.

That may sound unnecessarily complicated; if so, here’s a much simpler explanation—you know that situation in which your friends are talking about someone whom you don’t know? And then you join your next group of friends, and they’re also talking about this person? And this time, you remember the person? For example, in junior high, this could be the “new guy”.  Well, in this case, you’ve heard of the person.

Finally, let’s try a simple contrast. Compare these two sentences:

  • I’ve heard Bubba. This sentence means that Bubba made a sound, and you heard him.
  • I’ve heard of Bubba. This sentence means that you don’t personally know Bubba, but you’re aware that he exists because you’ve heard him discussed or mentioned by others.

Let’s look at a similar one:

  • Christina? I’ve heard her coming home late. This sentence means that you’ve actually, physically heard Christina arriving at a late hour. For example, perhaps you heard the sound of the door opening when she came into the house.
  • Christina? I’ve heard of her coming home late. This sentence means that you yourself haven’t actually witnessed her coming home late, but you’re aware that other people have said that she comes home late.

Now, let’s see how these sentences work with the example I gave at the beginning:

  • I’ve heard the word ferret. Yes, this is correct.
  • *I’ve heard of the word ferret. Unless you mean that you’ve been told about this word by others, then this utterance is most likely wrong. (The * indicates that the utterance is given as “wrong”.)

Finally, you may be thinking that perhaps if someone explains the word to you or defines it for you, then it would be acceptable to say that you’ve heard of it. I would have to say that in this case, heard of is still incorrect; in this case, you’d want to say I just learned the word or I know the word, etc.

N.B. I hear this mistake in our classes at TestMagic, which is located in San Francisco, CA, USA. Id’ be curious to know whether anybody else hears this or has noticed this in other Englishes of the world.

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