The Meaning and Use of the Preposition ‘Of’

As a continuation of the series on frequently used and confused English prepositions, this post focuses on the word ‘of’. For more information on prepositions in general, please see the relevant post. Prepositions are words that help establish relationships between different elements in a sentence, such as nouns, pronouns and phrases, by indicating location, time, direction, movement, possession and more.

The main use of the word ‘of’ in English is to denote possession, but it has multiple other uses such as describing the origin of something, giving a measurement or other particulars and characteristics.

The origins of the word ‘of’

The preposition ‘of’ has changed over time. It is believed to have evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root ‘*apo’ or ‘*ap’ which carried the meanings of ‘off’, ‘away from’ or ‘from’. This root is also the source of prepositions with similar meanings in other Indo-European languages. Proto-Indo-European is the hypothetical reconstructed ancestral language from which a wide range of modern Indo-European languages are believed to have originated, such as Russian, Hindi and also English, among many others.

Proto-Germanic is the reconstructed ancestral language from which the Germanic languages, including English, descended. The Proto-Indo-European root branches out into eight language families of which the Germanic languages developed their own forms. In Proto-Germanic, the root ‘*apo’ evolved into ‘uf’ or ‘af’, which continued to carry the basic meaning of ‘from’ or ‘off’, and exists in this form in some other Germanic languages today. Note that the present day English word ‘off’ carries a very different meaning to the word ‘of’ that we are now examining.

In the Old English period, from 450 to 1100 AD, the preposition evolved further into its known form of ‘of’, retaining its original sense of indicating origin, possession and relationship. Over time, its usage expanded to encompass various other functions, such as expressing partitive relationships and descriptions as it does in the present day.

Let’s have a look at the contemporary usage of the word ‘of’:

Possession

‘Of’ is often used to indicate possession or belonging:

  • The book of Robert = Robert’s book, the book belonging to Robert
  • The house of my friend = the house belonging to my friend

Origin or source

‘Of’ can indicate the origin or source of something:

  • A cup of tea = the tea from which the cup is filled
  • A painting of a sunset = a painting that depicts a sunset

Description or composition

‘Of’ can describe the composition or characteristics of something:

  • A piece of cake = a portion that comes from a cake
  • A bouquet of roses = a collection of cut flowers made up of roses

Partitive

‘Of’ is used to indicate a part of a larger whole:

  • A slice of pizza = a portion taken from a pizza
  • A group of students = a subset from a larger set of students

Measure and quantity

‘Of’ can express quantity or measurement:

  • A litre of water = a measurement unit for the quantity of water
  • A bag of rice = a certain quantity or amount of rice

Attribution or association

‘Of’ can signify a connection or relationship:

  • The capital of France = the city associated with France’s government
  • The colour of the sky = the colour associated with the sky

Particulars and characteristics

‘Of’ can convey specific details or characteristics:

  • A friend of mine = a specific friend I’m referring to
  • The height of the mountain = the specific measurement of the mountain’s height

Time

Although less common, ‘of’ can indicate a specific time period or time frame:

  • The summer of 1969 = the time period in the year
  • The month of June

Phrasal verbs and common collocations

A phrasal verb is a native English expression containing a verb and a preposition (and sometimes also an adverb or other parts of speech); it is a phrase that functions as a verb. The English language, along with a number of other Central European languages, but perhaps slightly more so, is notorious for having a large number of phrasal verbs. The following are some of the better known verbs that collocate with ‘of’, along with some phrasal verbs with their definitions provided.

  • Get rid of
  • Take care of = to provide care for someone (NOT to ‘care for’, which denotes affectionate feelings towards a person)
  • Think of
  • Speak of
  • Dream of
  • Take advantage of
  • Make fun of = to laugh at or joke about
  • Run out of = to exhaust supplies
  • Get tired of
  • Hear of = to learn information about something

Please note that this list is not exhaustive as there are many phrasal verbs in the English language. Phrasal verbs are collocations and it is important to understand that other words and prepositions can also collocate with the above phrases in place of ‘of’, which may or may not change the meaning of those phrases.

In English the preposition ‘of’ can frequently be substituted by the preposition ‘about’:

  • to hear of = to hear about
  • to talk of = to talk about
  • to dream of = to dream about

Moreover, while the word ‘of’ originates from the word ‘from’, and in many languages the translation for these two English words is one identical word, in English these two words have distinct meanings and one cannot replace the another:

If I took a photograph from Sarah, I am saying that I removed an existing picture from Sarah; perhaps she was holding it in her hand.

If I say I took a photograph of Sarah, I am saying that I captured her image on camera. I created an image that was not yet in existence.

Conclusion

The English word ‘of’ has a wide variety of similar uses, whereas its foreign counterparts have a far broader definition and usage, as its ancestor did, with the outcome that this simple word is nevertheless confused by learners of certain origins.

It is important to learn prepositions by becoming familiar with the sounds and uses of the English language in an instinctive way. Prepositions are one of the hardest parts of English to master and therefore require independent study and their correct application is the mark of an advanced speaker.

Exercises to practise

Have a go at the following exercises to see whether ‘to’ is the correct preposition in the given contexts.

1
Created on By Michelle
English

The Preposition 'Of'

Practise using the preposition 'of'

1 / 19

He accidentally spilled coffee ------ his shirt and had to change before the meeting.

2 / 19

This  is the best picture anyone has ever taken ------ me

3 / 19

She put ------ her coat and went out for a walk in the park.

4 / 19

She got tired ------- the same old routine and decided to try something new.

5 / 19

The company is looking to hire new employees to help ------ the workload.

6 / 19

The book tells the story ------- a brave knight on a quest for a magical treasure.

7 / 19

The scientist spoke ------- a ground-breaking discovery in the field of medicine.

8 / 19

The company ran out ------- supplies due to unexpected high demand.

9 / 19

The children are excited to start ------ their summer holiday tomorrow.

10 / 19

I need to get rid ------- these old clothes to create more space in my wardrobe.

11 / 19

The students made fun ------- their teacher's quirky sense of humour.

12 / 19

The chef managed to whip up a delicious meal ------ just a short amount of time.

13 / 19

He often dreams ------- travelling to exotic destinations around the world.

14 / 19

The team decided to make the most ------- the limited resources available.

15 / 19

They need to figure out a solution ------ the complex maths problem.

16 / 19

He quickly picked ------ the guitar and started playing his favourite song.

17 / 19

I couldn't believe it when I heard ------- their incredible journey.

18 / 19

The artist created a beautiful painting ------- a serene landscape.

19 / 19

She took care ------- her sick grandmother during the weekend.

Your score is

The average score is 94%

0%

If you have any questions, suggestions or comments, please do add them below.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Börjars, Kersti, and others. Introducing English Grammar, 2nd edn (Routledge, 2010)

Burton-Roberts, Noel. Analysing Sentences: An Introduction to English Syntax, 4th edn (Routledge, 2016)

Cresswell, Julia. Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, 3rd edn (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 3rd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Crystal, David. The Stories of English (Penguin, 2005)

Dreyer, Benjamin. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Penguin Random House, 2020)

Hewings, Martin, and others. Cambridge English Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Huddleston, Rodney, and others. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

McWhorter, John. The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (Harper Perennial, 2003)

Parrott, Martin. Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Quirk, Randolph, and others. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, reprint edn (Pearson, 2011)

Seely, John. Oxford A – Z of Grammar & Punctuation (Oxford University Press, 2020)

Trask, R. L. The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin Books, 1997)

Yates Ph.D., Jean. Prepositions, 3rd edn (Barron’s Education, 2020)

New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005)

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/

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