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Only a prepositional phrase can substitute for an adjective:

  • Time is highly important -> Time is of great importance.

  • Time is essential -> Time is of the essence.

As for how "of the essence" should be interpreted, within the context of a contract I agree with @jsw29.understand the sentence in question as meaning:

  • Time is essential to this contract.

Only a prepositional phrase can substitute for an adjective:

  • Time is highly important -> Time is of great importance.

  • Time is essential -> Time is of the essence.

As for how "of the essence" should be interpreted, I agree with @jsw29.

Only a prepositional phrase can substitute for an adjective:

  • Time is highly important -> Time is of great importance.

  • Time is essential -> Time is of the essence.

As for how "of the essence" should be interpreted, within the context of a contract I understand the sentence in question as meaning:

  • Time is essential to this contract.
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source | link

Only a prepositional phrase can substitute for an adjective:

  • Time is highly important -> Time is of great importance.

  • Time is essential -> Time is of the essence.

As for how "of the essence" should be interpreted, I agree with @jsw29.