I argue that the "United States of America" is different than the "Kingdom of Cambodia", for instance, because one uses "of" to describe a relationship with something larger (ie: the continents of America) while the other is describing an object that is one in the same (ie: the Kingdom IS Cambodia).

What kind of terminology would apply to these differences?

  • 1
    "Of America" | "Of Cambodia" - Not sure that there is a term because both are are descriptors (adjectives) of the nouns: "States" and "Kingdom." Also, both are political entities, so there's that similarity. Can you provide detail on what you are trying to write or justify?
    – Sam
    Commented Oct 15, 2013 at 15:17
  • 1
    There's no significant difference between "the penguins of Malaysia" and "the United States of America". There's no significant difference between "the Kingdom of Cambodia" and "the police station of Pawtucket".
    – Charles
    Commented Oct 15, 2013 at 15:30

4 Answers 4

  • a picture of Bill
    = a picture that depicts Bill
  • a picture of Bill's
    The word of comes as close as it is possible to get to having no meaning whatsoever.

It's the default preposition, used in thousands of idioms
(like the complex quantifiers few of, a lot of, and oodles of, for instance)
and often mistaken for the genitive case because of its frequency.

In fact, it has lots more grammatical uses.
For instance, when nominalizing the verb in a clause,

  • The passenger in compartment 3A departed early.
  • The porter identified the passenger in compartment 3B.

the verb's most prominent argument (normally the subject, for intransitive clauses,
and the direct object, for transitive clauses) gets marked with of
(while a transitive subject gets a genitive -'s suffix):

  • the early departure of the passenger in compartment 3A
  • the identification of the passenger in compartment 3B
  • the porter's identification of the passenger in compartment 3B

That's one use, at least as common as the possessive marker.
In picture nouns, to give another example, various possessives have different uses:

  • Bill's picture
    = some picture that Bill owns; or that depicts him; or that is associated with him, somehow.
  • a picture of Bill's (ditto)
  • a picture of Bill (= a picture that depicts Bill)

So any argument based on the literal meaning of of
is unlikely to convince anyone, since there isn't any.

  • Just because "of" has many different meanings depending on he context doesn't by any means say it doesn't have a "literal" meaning. It absolutely does. it indicates a genitive relation between the two nouns. The genitive relation does have several different precise meanings, but the word "bank" has several meanings, and the preposition "with" has several meanings. That doesn't mean that they haven't got a literal meaning. It just means there are several choices, and the context determines the correct one.
    – Fraser Orr
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 20:19

In the latter, the geographical part of the name serves to specify the general part, whereas in the former, the relationship of the two parts is a comprisal. In the latter, the two parts are geographically equated, whereas in the former, one comprises the other.


In United States of America, the term "of America" distinguishes them from any other group that might call themselves "United States".

In Kingdom of Cambodia, the term "of Cambodia" distinguishes it from any other "Kingdom".

On the other hand, in United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the second part "of ..." is specifying the constituent parts that make up the United Kingdom.


These usages are called "genitives." The genitive construction has many different meanings both in English and other languages. At a big picture level it modifies the head noun in a restrictive way, but the manner of this modification and restriction is very contextually dependent.

In your case the first:

The United States of America

Would be called a genitive of possession (the United States, which belongs to, or are within America),

The Kingdom of Cambodia

Is a genitive of apposition (the Kingdom, that is to say Cambodia.)

See the Wikipedia article on the genitive case.

One other point, there are two forms of genitive in English, the one you listed and the so called Saxon genitive, which uses an apostrophe 's. They have broadly similar meanings but are sometimes slightly different in emphasis.

America's United States

Means broadly the same, though the emphasis is on America here rather than on United States. (The meaning is also slightly obscured because "United States of America" is pretty idomatic, which is to say in some respects it is a semantic unit that should be taken as a whole rather than as a composition of its parts.)

Cambodia's Kingdom

Again conveys the same basic meaning, but has a subtly different emphais, as well as being subject to a broad idiomatic form for country names.

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