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I'm having a hard time understanding the purpose or meaning of the definite article, the in the common phrase, Time is of the essence.

My first thought is that it refers to the task that is time-sensitive, but certainly time or timeliness is not the essence of that task (unless perhaps the task is to set a clock).

Can anyone shed light on this formulation?

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We all agree about what the expression means and its correct form, but I have no idea how to explain what "the" does there, especially since it is absent in similar expressions, like "a man of substance". – Cerberus Jan 13 '11 at 16:46
@Cerberus Exactly. – Jay Jan 13 '11 at 16:50
It seems that this is (also?) a special legalese phrase. In contract law, "time is of the essence" means that a failure to comply with certain terms of the contract at the specified time counts as a breach of contract. This in contrast with "within reasonable time", which means just what it says. legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Time+is+of+the+Essence – Cerberus Jan 13 '11 at 17:11
The essence of the issue at hand! – F'x Jan 14 '11 at 20:26
Therein lies the confusion. If I say "I'm defusing a bomb; time is of the essence!," speediness may be important, but it does not constitute the essence of the task. Perhaps "of" suggests that time is a component of the essence of the issue at hand? – Jay Jan 14 '11 at 20:32
up vote 11 down vote accepted

According to my New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Edition), the phrase of the essence means

critically important

When it is said, "Time is of the essence," it is implied that time is in short supply or it is of the utmost importance. Therefore, if this statement is used with regard to a certain task, then that task must be completed as quickly as possible, and with a sense of urgency.

Anything can be of the essence in any given situation. Examples:

  • Your concentration will be of the essence here. Put your mind squarely to the task at hand.
  • A keen interest in this job is of the essence, otherwise you lose it!
  • Consistent hard work is of the essence in this course; don't fall into lassitude.
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For more examples, a Google search for "is of the essence" -time gives quite a few: "speed is of the essence", "elegance is of the essence", "quality is of the essence", "timing is of the essence", etc. Of course, I still don't know why "is of the essence" came to mean "is essential" (essentially). – ShreevatsaR Jan 13 '11 at 16:07
@ShreevatsaR: Nice one. Was having a hard time coming up with those commonly desired qualities like quality, speed, etc. Cool! – Jimi Oke Jan 13 '11 at 16:24

"Time is of the essence" is a phrase used in contract law. It means that whoever is fulfilling the contract doesn't have limitless amounts of time to get around to it. For more than that, you'd have to consult m'learned friends.

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+1 to cancel the downvote; this is a correct response which sheds light on the formulation, as the OP asked. – Rob Perkins Jan 14 '11 at 22:41
@Rob: Agreed. Here is another up-vote. – Cerberus Jan 16 '11 at 0:12

I would guess that "time is essential in this project" would sound logical and appropriate to your situation.

Note that the word essential is directly derived from the word essence; "of the essence" is one way of adjectivizing essence, and essential is just another way of doing so.

We do similar things with many words. A couple examples:

  • "Talk about something of substance" vs. "talk about something substantial".

  • "A statement of fact" vs. "A factual statement".

  • "I did it by accident" vs. "I did it accidentally" (in this case we are adverbializing).

It so happens that, nowadays, "of the essence" is rarely used, while "essential" is common. "Time is of the essence" is one of the few phrases that retains this construction, and so it sounds odd, but etymologically and structurally, it is straightforward.

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Maybe I'm too sleepy, but I don't find it structurally straightforward. As Cerberus asks, why is there a "the" in "of the essence"? We don't say "something of the substance", "statement of the fact", etc. (And apparently many do say, correctly or incorrectly, "time is of essence", without the.) – ShreevatsaR Jan 13 '11 at 16:53
@ShreevatsaR: Mysterious as it may be, I don't think the presence of the makes the phrase structurally unclear with respect to how it relates to the adjectival form. – Kosmonaut Jan 13 '11 at 17:23
I am not sure what you mean by "structurally" in this context, but I agree that the use of "of" is clear—I'd call it a genitive of quality—, and that "the" changes nothing about this. Even so, if you ever come across an explanation for the mysterious article... – Cerberus Jan 16 '11 at 0:16
@Cerberus: Right. I think if we got hung up on the the here, there are many other uses of the in similar situations that would be tough to explain. Like the US-English "I need to go to the hospital", for example. It does not imply that you must be talking about a specific hospital, but it is there nonetheless. – Kosmonaut Jan 16 '11 at 5:45
Absolutely. The use of articles is sometimes very difficult to explain or trace back to some mechanism we understand. That is why I find them fascinating. – Cerberus Jan 16 '11 at 5:51

Time is of the essence of the contract. It is an essential term of the contract. Where essential terms are breached, even slightly, the non-breaching party is afforded damages.

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