“Of” and a partner noun can combine with nouns, verbs or adjectives to express widely varying meanings
THE VERSATILITY OF “of”
Of is a preposition of a quite unusual kind. In one respect, its use is rather restricted. Where most other prepositions and their following noun are equally able to act like either an adjective or an adverb (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions, #2), combinations with of seem mostly adjectival (see 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases). Moreover, of is one of only a few prepositions that cannot also be used alone as an adverb (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs, #5).
In another respect, however, of has an exceptionally wide range of uses: practically every Guinlist post on English preposition usage makes reference to it. Here I wish to gather together a wide variety of of uses, in order both to reinforce what I have said elsewhere about this small preposition, and also perhaps to help some more general appreciation of it. The uses can be classified according to whether of and its partner noun say something about a noun, a verb or an adjective.
“of” PHRASES ASSOCIATED WITH NOUNS
When of and its partner noun give information about another noun (usually placed just before), they are acting like an adjective. In a few cases, what makes of the right choice of preposition is its own partner noun after it: the two typically appear together in what is often called a “collocation”. Examples are of concern, of interest and of + (number) + sorts/types/kinds. For more, see 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases.
More often, however, the following noun is not what determines the choice of of: instead it is either the earlier noun or a need to express a particular meaning of of. The earlier noun seems the determinant in phrases like a source of confusion and the possibility of succeeding. Meaning takes over when we say, for example, the destruction of Pompeii, preferring of to the equally possible in or beyond.
The special meaning that of can have between two nouns is quite varied. The most obvious is perhaps that of “possession” or “ownership”, often paraphrasable with an apostrophe ending (see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings). Apart from this, the following seem especially notable.
1. Showing the Object of a Noun Action
In grammar, an “object” is a noun or equivalent placed usually after an active verb and naming something affected by that verb’s action or state (for more details, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). However, the idea of “affected” can also belong to nouns that are not the object of a verb, but are instead associated with verb-like meaning expressed by another noun.
Nouns that express a verb-like meaning are elsewhere in this blog called “action” nouns (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). Most are made by adding an ending (-tion, -ment, -al, -age), or even no ending at all, to a verb. Examples are creation, improvement, removal, storage and change (see 14. Action Outcomes). Such nouns are just as able to link with an object-like noun as verbs are, but they need a preposition to do it. Of is the normal object-showing preposition. It has this meaning in the destruction of Pompeii, and also in the following:
(a) Growth depends on the creation of demand.
Here, if creation was an active verb instead of a noun, demand would be its object, and of would be absent.
A problem in this area for learners of English is that sometimes other prepositions have to be used instead of of. For advice on which ones and when, see 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1. It is also worth noting that the noun after object-showing of can often, like nouns after other prepositions, drop of and move directly in front of the other noun – e.g. demand creation in (b) – without changing the meaning (see 136. Types of Description by Nouns). Sometimes the relocated noun even has -’s (see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings).
2. Showing the Subject of a Noun Action
The normal preposition for showing the subject of a noun action is by:
(b) Information storage by the brain is now better understood.
However, as pointed out in the Guinlist post 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2, of is likely to show the subject instead of by when the action noun corresponds to a verb that normally has no object, as in this example:
(c) The appearance of the sun changes everything.
If the verb APPEAR was used here instead of the noun appearance, the sun would be its subject, and there would be no object.
3. Enabling Uncountable Nouns to be Used like Countable Ones
This use is commonly illustrated at elementary level with such phrases as loaves of bread and pieces of advice. The words after of are uncountable and hence cannot be used after plural words like many and certain singular ones like a and each (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a” and 169. “All”, “Each” and “Every”).
The words before of get round this restriction. Of is always the link word. For more examples, see 180. Nouns that Count the Uncountable.
4. Showing Other Kinds of Inter-Noun Relation
Most of the other kinds of relation that of can show between two nouns are listed elsewhere within this blog in the post 136. Types of Description by Nouns. For example, “component-holder”, as in a table leg, equates to a leg of a table, “measurement”, as in a six-page essay, equates to an essay of six pages, and “material” as in copper piping, equates to piping of copper.
A different post (78. Infinitive versus Preposition after Nouns) illustrates the way an of phrase can say what something is, as in the difficulty of crime prevention. The same relation is also present in stage of crisis – a very different use of of from that in stage of development (see 170. Logical Errors in Written English).
5. Enabling “the” + Noun to Follow Quantity Words
Quantity words – whether exact like one, two etc. or vague like a few, some, many, most, any and all – may or may not have a following noun. With one, of is sometimes needed in between and sometimes not. The rule is essentially that, if the noun needs the (or a similar “definite” word like his), of must also be included (e.g. many of the books), but otherwise it must not (many books). For details, see 133. Confusions of Similar Structures 1 (#1), 138. Test your Command of Grammar (#24) and 169. “All”, “Each” and “Every”.
Quantity words used before a noun without of the are like adjectives (more precisely, they are “determiners” – see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). With of the present, however, they become pronouns, and hence are noun-like in the way they combine with of.
“of” PHRASES ASSOCIATED WITH VERBS
It is less common for of to link its following noun with a verb. This is because usually, when a preposition links its noun to a verb, the whole preposition phrase is being used like an adverb, a possibility not greatly associated with of phrases. However, there is one exceptional way of linking of with a verb: in so-called “prepositional” verbs, like this:
(d) Water consists of hydrogen and oxygen.
The special feature of prepositional verbs is that the preposition they need is deemed to be a part of them rather than of any following phrase, so that the noun after the preposition (hydrogen and oxygen above) is not combining with it to make an adverbial phrase, but is instead a simple complement (as above) or object (see 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs). Thus, the verb in (d) is consists of, not just consists.
Not all prepositional verbs have the verb and preposition next to each other as in (d). Many need a noun or pronoun in between (see 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun). Here is an example with of:
(e) Teachers should remind LEARNERS of past lessons.
Of is fairly rare with verbs like CONSIST; other examples include CONCEIVE OF, KNOW OF and APPROVE OF. However, verbs like REMIND have of more frequently, examples being ACCUSE … OF, APPRAISE … OF, CONVINCE … OF, DEPRIVE … OF, ROB … OF and KEEP TRACK OF (see as well 141. Ways of Using MAKE, #4). If such verbs are used in the passive voice, the middle noun becomes the subject and of comes immediately after the verb:
(f) Chalk rocks are made of animal skeletons.
A third group, so-called “phrasal-prepositional” verbs (see 139. Phrasal Verbs, #5), also contribute one or two examples, e.g. BACK OUT OF and GET OUT OF.
USAGE WITH ADJECTIVES
Adjectives quite often have a partner of phrase. There are at least two different types of such phrase. In one, the possibility of of depends on which adjective is chosen: change the adjective and of may have to change to another preposition. This kind of partnership is thus another one of “collocation” (see 111. Words with a Typical Preposition).
Adjectives that make collocations with of sometimes express particular types of meaning. One group – devoid, empty, full, short – indicates how much of the thing named after of is present (however, many other adjectives do this with with – e.g. complete, crammed, crowded, filled, full up and packed – and lacking needs in).
Of adjectives may also express emotions. Examples are afraid, ashamed, confident, fearful, fond, glad, hopeful, jealous, nervous, proud, scared, sure, terrified and tired (The underlined words also take a to verb – for the difference, see 175. Tricky Word Contrasts 6, #5). However, once again there is much unreliability: interested takes in, surprised takes at, and many like pleased vary their preposition to express different meanings (see 134. Words with a Variable Preposition).
Other of adjectives include aware, capable, characteristic, conscious, guilty, reminiscent, typical and worthy.
A rather different use of of with adjectives helps to express a comparison:
(g) Of all the aids to language learning, dictionaries are the best.
Of here means “within the group of”. The word all is not compulsory but adds emphasis. The idea of comparison, of course, is expressed by the superlative adjective best. The of phrase could be placed straight after it. Comparative forms of adjectives and adverbs can also be used with of in this way. Even base adjectives are possible, but they perhaps need a new noun after them – a good choice for the best in (g).
Note that of is not the only preposition possible with comparison words: best, for example, can also combine with at to name the area of excellence (e.g. best at football) rather than its owner’s rivals.