I am reading the Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee.

It has ' He passed the bar immediately, though I know he never intended to practice the law or big corporate business. He wanted the credentials. But that sounds too cynical of him, which would be all wrong. He wasn't vulnerable to that kind of pettiness.'

I do not quite understand that sentence. Thank you very much.

  • We can use 'of' to link a real or conjectured aspect of a person's personality to that person's actions, e.g - he gave a child a toy, which was kind of him. The writer is saying that the subject's supposed motives for passing the bar (law) examination make him sound (seem) more cynical than he really was. Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 21:25
  • Thank you so much, Michael Harvey, for the reply. So, is it the same construct as 'it is kind of you to say so', which is 'by saying so, you are kind'? So, if I rephrase, is it 'it is cynical of him to want the lawyer credentials only by passing the law exam and not practicing it', which is 'because he just wants to have the lawyer license, he is cynical'? Also, I am not quite clear about the meaning of cynical. Does that mean he believes people behave selfishly or people believes he behaves selfishly? Thank you very much.
    – user104533
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 16:04

2 Answers 2


The English in this passage isn't quite correct. I would correct it to this:

He passed the bar immediately, although I know he never intended to practice law or join a big corporation. He wanted the credentials. But that sounds too cynical for him; it would be all wrong. He wasn't vulnerable to that kind of pettiness.

Here are some examples of when I might use of:

I don't think of him as that cynical.
That sort of cynicism is not something that I would expect of him.
From what I know of him, I wouldn't expect him to be that cynical.

Use of prepositions is highly idiomatic, and many phrases simply have to be learned by rote.

  • 1
    I think 'that sounds too cynical of him' is perfectly normal and correct. Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 12:41
  • Thank you, RobRodes, for the reply. As I mentioned above, I am not quite clear about the word cynical. Does "I don't think of him as that cynical." mean that "I think that he is willing to believe that people have good, honest, or sincere reasons for doing something(from online Longman Dictionary)"? Thank you.
    – user104533
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 16:17
  • @user104533 Not quite. If I say "People are saying that Bob robbed the grocery store, but I don't think he is that stupid," I am not saying that I think Bob is smart; I am saying that I don't think Bob is stupid enough to rob a grocery store. Same with "that cynical"; the sentence is saying that while he may be cynical and he may not be, he is not so cynical that he would get a law degree for nothing more than having the credential. Another example: people say "I may be dumb, but I'm not that dumb" when they are saying that something they are accused of doing is too dumb for them to do it.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 2:13
  • Thank you, BobRodes, for the additional comment.
    – user104533
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 16:46
  • 1
    This is a typical idiomatic form in English. I don't know whether this is nice of me or not, to point it out. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 14:16

to be x: adjective of someone is very idiomatic in English.

Person One: John wants to win the race this year! [John is a slow runner]
Person Two: That's very ambitious of him.

Person One: He only wanted the credentials. Person Two: That's very cynical of him.

Person One: They want to give us a party! Person Two: That's very nice of them.

This form is common and found everywhere in English.

[Please note: the paragraph has a couple of odd things. Generally, for example, we say practice law, no the. And we would not say: practice corporate business, which the sentence implies. It just isn't the best writing....]

That sounds too cynical for him. means: Those comments or ideas sound to cynical for him to make or have, respectively.

  • That's very ambitious of John implies that John's level of ambition is objectively high (it would be ambitious of anyone to have such aspirations). But That's very ambitious for John implies by comparison with the levels of ambition we normally expect from John. Perhaps objectively speaking it's not very ambitious at all, but we happen to know that John is remarkably unambitious in general, so for him to show even slight aspirational qualities is noteworthy. Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 14:35
  • It may be nice for you but it is not nice of you to bring up something unrelated.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 14:42
  • I think it's extremely relevant that the cited text has what I and @BobRodes below seem to agree is the "wrong" preposition in the specific expression being queried. I have no idea whether you agree with me and Bob, or with Michael Harvey (who apparently doesn't recognize the relevant semantic distinction associated with the preposition choice), but it seems to me the OP's question here could be said to turn on that distinction. "Unrelated" refers to things like whether someone might practice the law. Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 14:54
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica cynical of him, he is being cynical. cynical for him is a special case. "Those remarks he made. Man, those sound too cynical for him [ to make]". I think of here is fine.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 15:04
  • Exactly. cynical of him = he is being cynical. Where for him = special case - but if it's too cynical for him, either it never happened at all, or it involved someone other than him. Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 15:23

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