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There is a question about "that of which" in which case the "of" is necessary. I'm wondering if the "of" is necessary in "that of whether.

Here is an example:

A prominent question in metaphilosophy is that of whether philosophical progress occurs, and more so, whether such progress in philosophy is even possible.

It seems to me that dropping the "of" does not change the meaning.

This question seems related.

  • It makes it ungrammatical. – Jim Mar 19 '17 at 5:33
  • @Jim Do you mean the "of" is grammatically necessary? – zjk Mar 19 '17 at 5:34
  • Yes. Without it one is left waiting for a predicate after the word possible. – Jim Mar 19 '17 at 5:42
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    You can't drop "of" leaving just "that" remaining. The interrogative clause whether philosophical progress occurs remains is introduced by the interrogative subordinator "whether". But "that" is also a subordinator, though not an interrogative one, so you'd end up with two subordinators introducing the clause, which makes no sense and would be ungrammatical. A prominent question in metaphilosophy is whether philosophical progress occurs is fine and does not change the meaning – BillJ Mar 19 '17 at 8:42
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    To explain about "that": In A prominent question in metaphilosophy is that of whether philosophical progress occurs, the item "that" is not a subordinator, but a pronoun used anaphorically to refer back to the noun phrase a prominent question, so we understand A prominent question in metaphilosophy is the prominent question of whether philosophical progress occurs. The pro-form "that" simply avoids the repetition of "a prominent question". But if you drop "of", then the clause structure changes and "that" becomes a subordinator rendering the clause ungrammatical. – BillJ Mar 19 '17 at 9:09
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Here are the sentences in question:

  1. (original) A prominent question in metaphilosophy is that of whether philosophical progress occurs, and more so, whether such progress in philosophy is even possible.
  2. (dropped 'of') A prominent question in metaphilosophy is that whether philosophical progress occurs, and more so, whether such progress in philosophy is even possible.

Here are a couple of major changes that dropping "of" introduces:

  • The word that in #1 forms part of the phrase that of, which refers back to the opening phrase. It (that) may be replaced by the phrase the prominent question while retaining the meaning of the sentence. In #2, it acts as a conjunction, introducing the following clause. That and the prominent question aren't 'drop-in replacements' for each other in #2.

  • The phrase whether philosophical progress occurs is the immediate "prominent question" in #1. In #2, it is a dangling clause. Removing of to produce #2 causes the whole sentence to become incomplete. Instead of the question being "whether X is Y" as it is in both whether causes of #2, it needs to be a statement along the lines of whether [condition], [conclusion], asserting that regardless of the truth of the condition, the conclusion holds.

You ask:

Is the “of” necessary in “that of whether”?

Since you want to retain the meaning of the sentence you quoted, yes, it is necessary. However, if you remove "that of" instead of just "of", you retain the meaning of the original sentence, as noted by Janus Bahs Jacquet in comments to this answer.

  • Thank you for your amazing answer! I'm not getting the example of aposiopesis though – zjk Mar 19 '17 at 7:25
  • I’d say if you drop the of, you’ll have to introduce an ellipsis instead. “A question is that whether X is Y” is simply ungrammatical like that. “A question is that… whether X is Y” is grammatical as spoken language, where the sentence is stopped to be rephrased in the middle. If properly prepared and written down as a continuous, non-broken sentence, dropping of would also entail dropping that: “A question is whether X is Y”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 19 '17 at 9:07
  • @zjk It's a pleasure. In the example, the first sentence is left hanging without saying what they did (e.g. theft, but likely something much more horrible). – Lawrence Mar 19 '17 at 9:52
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks. I now think dropping of goes beyond aposiopesis - it breaks the grammar of the sentence completely. I agree that dropping the word that as well resolves the issue. I'll edit my answer accordingly. – Lawrence Mar 19 '17 at 9:59
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    @Lawrence - Nice. +1 – Jim Mar 20 '17 at 1:06

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