Of


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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. 

Any word that is used that often is going to have lots of variation in meaning and use--and is going to be a challenge for us to explain and teach.

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.
 
 
Because its changes are so gradual but its implications so profound, sociologists use the term "quiet revolution" to refer to the contiually increasing proportions of women who have joined the ranks of paid labor.  This trend, shown in Figure 14.5, means a transformation of consumer patterns, relations at work, self-concepts, and relationships with boyfriends, husbands, and children.  One of the most significant aspects of the quiet revolution is indicated by Figure 14.5c.  Note that since 1960 the proportion of married women with preschool children who work for wages has tripled.  It now equals the average of all U.S. women.  We discuss the implications of these changes in Chapter 16. 

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. 
 
 

1. To connect a noun to another noun  1. proportions of women
2. aspects of the revolution
3. implications of
2. To connect a noun to a noun that's part of a set phrase with a verb 4. take care of....
3. To connect a noun to a verb or an adjective 5. tell of
6. afraid of
4. To form a complex preposition 7. out of (He is out of town).
8. on top of (The book is on top of the desk.)

An Overview of Uses of the Preposition Of

The preposition of is used in sentences in the following ways:
 
 

1. Genitive/Posessive Meanings
(see below for the wide variety of meanings associated with this category)
1. the jewelry of the famous movie star
2. the wines of France
3. the mother of my best friend
2. Partitive Structures 4. a glass of water
5. mountains of information
3. Indirect Object [direct object = question and indirect object = student] 6. The teacher asked a question of the student.
4. With comparatives 7. She is more of a grammarian than I had realized. 
5. As an appositive [the city is Atlanta; the child is an angel; the driver is a fool] 8. the City of Atlanta
9. an angel of a child
10. the fool of a driver
    

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:
 
 

1. Possession/ownership 1. John's book
2. the jewelry of the famous movie star
2. Source/Agency/Origin 3. France's wines
4. the wines of France
3. Human Relationships 5. Mary's sister
6. the mother of my best friend
4. Traits/Attributes (physical & other) 7. Maria's brown eyes
8. Maria's strong personality
9. the fireman's brave actions
10. the brave actions of the young fireman
5. Representation 11. Walter's portrait
12. the portrait of Walter
13. the statue of the Civil War general
6.  Evaluation (the value of something) 14. the paper's importance
15. the jewelry's cost
16. the importance of the invention
17. the cost of the new computer
7.  Named After 18. St. Paul's cathedral
19. the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
8.  Measurement 20. an hour's time
21. a year's extent
9. Subject of nominalized verb 22. the earth's rotation (the earth rotates)
23. the rotation of the earth
24. his parent's consent (his parents consented)
10. Object of nominalized verb 25. the prisoner's release (the government released the prisoner)
11. Description 26. He sells children's shoes. (the shoes are for children). 

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.
 
 

If the of-phrase serves to describe the headnoun (e.g., the diameter of a circle, the length of a room), then it limits that noun, which serves to identify it because there is usually only one.  Furthermore, such phrases can be inverted into possessive structures (a circle's diameter, a room's length) .... 

If, on the other hand, the headnoun of the of-phrase represents a portion, part (hence the term partitive), or measure of the object of the preposition of (e.g., a cup of coffee, a length of eight feet), then it presents one of many possible divisions of that object (we could have a pound/bag/teaspoon of coffee or a height/diameter/thickness of eight feet), which serves to classify it.  Partitive phrases cannot be inverted into possessive structures (*coffee's cup, *eight feet's length). (p. 473)


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:
 
 

[One issue that arises from discourse studies is the use of particular words in particular settings--and not in other settings.]  A more far-reaching implication...is the question of whether it really makes sense in all cases to teach prepositions as meaningful words unto themselves.  What could be the meaning of by, for example, in the expression by and large?  Some applied linguists would submit that some of the most frequently occurring prepositions are delexicalized (Lindstromberg, 1996) and that it therefore makes sense to think not only about teaching their meanings but also about teaching their recurring combinations.  Kennedy (1990), for instance, in studying the preposition at, found that 142 collocations beginning with the word at accounted for 43 percent of its 2576 tokens.  The most frequent collocation, at least...is very telling in that like other frequently occurring collocations, its basic locative meaning does not stand out.  Kennedy suggests that to treat prepositions as roughly substitutable parts of speech can be very misleading.  It may be then that we shouldn't teach certain prepositions in isolation but rather teach them in relation to their occurrence with other words.  (p. 415)

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)

2. "The commonist preposition in noun-phrase postmodification ... [is] of." (p. 1275)

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)

2. Then, they studied the others and found that:

a. Of-phrases far outnumber s-genitives in all genres.
b. Conversation has the fewest of-phrases and s-genitives.
c. Newspaper writing has the highest frequency of s-genitives.
d. Academic writing has the highest frequency of of-phrases and very few s-genitives.


Trying to Apply Our Knowledge in the Real World

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:
 
 

Because its changes are so gradual but its implications so profound, sociologists use the term "quiet revolution" to refer to the contiually increasing proportions of women who have joined the ranks of paid labor.  This trend, shown in Figure 14.5, means a transformation of consumer patterns, relations at work, self-concepts, and relationships with boyfriends, husbands, and children.  One of the most significant aspects of the quiet revolution is indicated by Figure 14.5c.  Note that since 1960 the proportion of married women with preschool children who work for wages has tripled.  It now equals the average of all U.S. women.  We discuss the implications of these changes in Chapter 16. 

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.
 
 

1. the contiually increasing proportions of women  
2. the ranks of paid labor  
3. a transformation of consumer patterns, relations at work, self-concepts, and relationships with boyfriends, husbands, and children  
4. One of the most significant aspects  
5. the most significant aspects of the quiet revolution  
6.  the proportion of married women with preschool children who work for wages  
7. the average of all U.S. women  
8. the implications of these changes

You 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?

If the preposition of is used a lot more than the s-genitive, what does that mean for us as ESL/EFL teachers?

If the preposition of is involved in a number of set phrases (of words that always appear together in the same form), what does that mean for us as ESL/EFL teachers?

If the preposition of (and the s-genitive) appear in different amounts in different types of communication, what does that mean for us as ESL/EFL teachers?

Please let me know your questions and/or comments. Thanks.

References

        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.