Look at some examples
All studies of word frequency in all types of discourse samples show a recurring feature of English: the preposition of is just about always in the 10 most frequent words and often in the top five most frequent words in a particular sample of authentic English. What does that suggest for us?
Any word that is used that often is going to be important for ESL/EFL learners.Before considering the information provided by reference grammars about the preposition of, let's look at a sample paragraph from the sociology book that I'm using for examples in this course. It's from a section called "Women and Work." This short passage includes eight uses of the preposition of.
Overview of Structural Uses
Like other prepositions,
the preposition of is used to make connections--and to set up relationships
between a noun and some other word--often with another noun but possibly
with other word categories, too. So, of is like other prepositions
in that way. However, it is quite unlike the other prepositions
that are often used as adverbials.
An Overview of Uses of the Preposition Of
preposition of is used in sentences in the following ways:
Genitive/Possessive with English Nouns
Discussions of the uses and meaning of the preposition of generally begin with the ways that English nouns show "possession." These discussions remind us that, in writing, nouns show possessive meaning by the addition of 's or s' and that these spellings represent sounds that are the same as the sounds of plural forms of the noun. So, possession with this s-genitive is shown by context in speech and by a spelling device in writing. (Certainly lots of people are confused about the difference as can be seen in errors of spelling on signs where the plural is given with an apostrophe or the possessive is given without an apostrophe.)
The term genitive
is used by grammarians; ESL/EFL teachers generally use the term possessive.
Whatever term we use, we need to be clear that this noun form has meanings
that go beyond that of "ownership." First, let's take a tour of
possible meanings for the genitive/possessive and then return to
our focus on the preposition of. The following table
combines meanings and terminology from several grammar reference books:
Probably there's no
end to making such lists--but these 11 come from very widely used sources
and seem like a reasonable starting place for ESL/EFL lessons and materials.
The questions for us, however, are about when the preposition of
is preferred--and when it is impossible.
Description vs. Partition
In ESL/EFL, we tend to focus on the conversational and personal uses of the genitive--Mary's book, the teacher's office hours, my sister's child. That is, we focus primarily on the first 8 uses of the genitive on our list (ownership, source, relationships, traits, representation, named after, and measurement). Number 11 on the list is important, too.
In his article in the
TESOL Quarterly on the English article system (a, an, the),
Peter Master provides a useful distinction between the descriptive of-phrase
and the partitive of-phrase.
Prepositions in Discourse Contexts
When you compare the
1988 version of the Grammar Book to the 1999 version (the 2nd edition),
you'll see that one of the major changes that has happened in grammar
study is the development of corpus linguistics with its study of large
samples of authentic discourse. In corpus linguistics, computers
are used to analyze large samples of authentic materials--and then a variety
of statistical procedures are applied to the resulting data. In
their preposition chapter in the 2nd edition of the Grammar Book,
Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman talk about the use and meaning of the
preposition of in terms of "grammaticalization." That term
refers to a change in a word when it loses its independent meaning and
takes on a more structural role--and becomes part of a set phrase rather
than an independent actor. Here's an important passage toward the
end of their preposition chapter:
The Preposition Of in Discourse Context
In the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the authors comment that
1. "A prepositional phrase is by far the commonest type of postmodification in English; it is three or four times more frequent than either finite or nonfinite clausal postmodification." (p. 1274)The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English provides even more information based on their corpus study of the differences between the s-genitive and of-phrases.
1. Some types of of-phrases never have s-genitive alternatives: (a) those that are part of fixed phrases with verbs or adjectives (accused of, afraid of) and (b) the partitives. They do not use the word partitive but have this statement: "[The of-phrases that we excluded from our study included] of-phrases preceded by numerals, quantifying determiners, unit nouns, collective nouns, quantifying nouns, or species nouns (one of, some of, a piece of, a herd of, a box of, types of, etc.)." (p. 301)
Having gotten an overview
of ways to analyze the preposition of, let's go back to the same
of academic textbook English that we looked at when we started this section
of the lecture. Here's the quotation again:
Let's try to analyze
these uses of the preposition of using the information provided by the
reference grammars. Go slow--take a deep breath. This kind
of task is always a challenge.
can click here to see my answers. But do try figuring these
out for yourself first. Try asking yourself questions that would
eliminate categories: Is a verb/adjective combination involved?
Is it a partitive? (What's a partitive?!)
Implications for Teaching
What do you see in the information from these reference sources that we can implement in ESL/EFL materials? Let's talk about it in the small groups. I'll provide a beginning but I do hope to learn from you about your ideas on this important topic.
If the preposition of is the most common preposition and one of the most frequently used words, what does that mean for us as ESL/EFL teachers?Please let me know your questions and/or comments. Thanks.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman Grammar of spoken and written English. Edinburgh Gate, Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.
Celce-Murcia, M. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The grammar book: An ESL/EFL teacher's course. (2nd ed.) Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Kennedy, G. (1991). Collocations: Where grammar and vocabulary teaching meet. In S. Anivan (ed.), Language teaching methodology for the nineties. Singapore: RELC, 212-229.
Lindstromberg, S. (1996). Prepositions: Meaning and method. ELT Journal 50:3, 225-236.
Master, P. (1990). Teaching the English articles as a binary system. TESOL Quarterly 24 (3), 461-478.
Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., and Svartvik, J. (1985). A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.