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So I just came across this phrase on the Washington Post: "The agreement represents something of a rebuke of Trump..."

To me "a rebuke to Trump" would sound more natural. I'd use of if the sentence went like "a rebuke of Trump's actions". But as I can't really explain why it should be like that, I'm guessing this is just a misguided feeling on my part. Should both prepositions be interchangeable here?

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    What do Google searches seem to show (I'd discount dated Biblical examples)? Nov 11, 2017 at 12:09

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Both forms—"a rebuke of" and "a rebuke to"—are in use and have been in use for many decades—but one form is considerably more common than the other, as this Ngram chart of "a rebuke to" (blue line) versus "a rebuke of" (red line) indicates:

To see whether one form might be more preferable in one situation and the other more preferable in another, I ran separate Ngram searches for "a rebuke of to/of them," "a rebuke to/of those," and "a rebuke to/of their." Here are the results.


'a rebuke to/of them'

First, let's look at the Ngram chart for "a rebuke to them" (blue line) versus "a rebuke of them" (no line):

There is no line for "a rebuke of" because Google Books found too few matches for the phrase to generate a line graph. The same thing happens when you run an Ngram search for "a rebuke to him" versus "a rebuke of him". This certainly suggests that when the object of the phrase is a countable noun or pronoun, the preference for "a rebuke to" is overwhelming. The case is less clear when the object of rebuke is a qualitative state. Google Books searches for "a rebuke to envy" and " rebuke of envy" turned up six unique matches for the former (including one cited twice from a commentary on Ecclesiastes) and two unique matches for the latter (including on from a translation of Dante's Purgatorio that turned up seven times).


'a rebuke to/of those'

Now let's consider "a rebuke to those" (blue line) versus "a rebuke of those" (red line):

Here there are enough matches for both phrases to yield plottable results, but just barely. In the phrase "a rebuke to/of those," the word those can function as a pronoun. but it may also act as an adjective identifying which ones of some plural noun. This may explain why "a rebuke of those" produces more matches than "a rebuke of them."

One of the earliest Google Books matches for the "of" form yields comes from the chapter summary notes in Samuel T. Armstrong, The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments, According to the Authorized Version; with Explanatory Notes, Practical Observations, and Copious Marginal References (1824):

A rebuke of those who made a scoff at the words of the true prophets, 33–40.

But this very same version of the Bible contains an early match for the "to" form, as well:

and to declare that this ruin was near at hand; as a rebuke to those who profanely spake of it as distant, 21–28.

It thus appears that Armstrong wasn't particular about the preposition he used to direct a rebuke. Another early match for "a rebuke of those" appears in remarks by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky during debates in the United States Senate (April 23, 1834):

With respect to the resolutions of the Legislatures of New Jersey and Maine, the President [Andrew Jackson] records them in his Protest as a censure of the Senators from those States, and asks the Senate to record them on their journals as authentic; yet all this is not to be taken as a rebuke of those members for their votes in the Senate.—Why, the honorable gentlemen might see, at once, that in this the President had committed a gross and palpable abuse of the privileges of this House.

The earliest Google Books match for "a rebuke of those," however, seems to be from a review of The History of the Puritans in The History of the Works of the Learned (May 1738):

Tho' this be our Author's Remark, in Quality of an Historian, we may regard it as dropping from the Pen of a Divine ; and it may be esteemed a rebuke of those vain Addresses to, and Expectations from, Heaven, which fanatical Spirits are mightily inclin'd to.

Meanwhile, instances of "a rebuke to" go at least as far back as Roger L'Estrange's rendition of Fables of Æsop (1692/1708 [fifth edition]):

But we must not Imagine at last, because the Moralist has made it a Woman's Case in the Story ["A Lady in Trouble for the Loss of a Set of Horses"], that we our Selves are not Guilty Every Man of us, in some sort or other, and in a Thousand Instances, f the same Weaknesses and Mistakes, even in the Ordinary Course of Human Life ; for what;s the Doctrine of all this upon the main, but a Rebuke to those that set their Affections too much upon the things of this World, and consequently too little upon Matters of great Moment ; with him that upon the Firing of his House, was so Overjoy'd for the saving of his Plate, Linnen, Paintings, Hangings, and other Rich Moveables, that he never so much as thought of his only Child all this while that was Burnt in the Cradle.

Both forms continue to appear in recent works, in situations that I find indistinguishable as a matter of syntax. For example, from Jonathan Herzog, The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America's Religious Battle against Communism in the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 2011):

The maxim ["A man's faith has no place in the political arena"] might have applied equally to Eisenhower, but most interpreted the senator's comments as an attack on any president who demonstrated personal faith rather than as a rebuke of those who displayed their religion for political reasons.

And from Ted Widmer, ed., The New York Times: Disunion: 122 Articles from The New York Times Opinionator: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln;s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation (2013):

To Southerners, then, anyone who helped man or woman escape bondage was simply a thief. But more infuriating than the monetary loss it occasioned, the Underground Railroad was an affront to the slaveholders' pride—and a rebuke to those who insisted that black men and women were comfortable and contented in bondage.


'a rebuke to/of their'

Third let's see what happens with "a rebuke to their" (blue line) versus "a rebuke of their" (red line):

Here, the "of" form does much better, relatively speaking, especially in publications from 1800s, although it still ends up trailing the "to" form over the past 120 years. The phrase includes a possessive adjective, their, which can modify various complex phrases as well as simple nouns.

And yet when you examine the individual matches for "a rebuke of their" from the 1800s, you get things like "a rebuke of their presumption" (1809), "a rebuke of their impious and sensual behaviour" (1814), "a rebuke of their presumption" (1823, unrelated to the 1809 instance), "a rebuke of their zeal" (1848), "a rebuke of their own scourging and burning system" (1848), and "a rebuke of their worldly ambition" (1850).

A corresponding list for "a rebuke to their" reveals very little difference in practical form: "a rebuke to their exultation" (1810), "a rebuke to their theory" (1842), "a rebuke to their maturer years" (1843), "a rebuke to their sins" (1851, "a rebuke to their authors" (1857), and "a rebuke to their skepticism, ... a rebuke to their lazy indifference" (1883).

There may be a difference in nuance between the two sets of phrases, but if so it is a very slight one.


Conclusion

The OP's suggestion that "a rebuke to" may apply more appropriately to people and "a rebuke of" may apply more appropriately to actions doesn't seem to hold up in the Google Books examples that I checked. I don't see any systematic distinction in usage between "a rebuke to" and "a rebuke of."

In my view, using "a rebuke of" is idiomatically defensible but uncommon, while using "a rebuke to" is idiomatically defensible and very widespread in the written record. All things else being equal (as they seem to be), I would give preference to "a rebuke to" over "a rebuke of" for that reason.

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Rebuke "to" makes sense if the rebuke is directly addressed to Trump. So if the agreement is made with the intention to disapprove or criticize Trump who will receive the agreement as a rebuke, then it is a rebuke to "Trump".

In this case "a rebuke of Trump" probably does implicitly refer to Trump's actions or ideas or statements but the author seems to be assuming those to be personified by Trump.

More clearly, the use of rebuke "of" normally is followed by whatever is bad and deserves rebuke, in this case it is Trump and whatever accompanies him. The author has not expressly said what, of the many things Trump does, is deserving of rebuke but this can probably be gathered from the context of the article.

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