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Of 'of': Expressing Possession and Being Possessed

The definition of 'of' was changed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from the 1989 edition to the 2010 edition. Below are 2 sub-topics regarding 2 changes to the definitions of 'of' that I believe are important to examine:

  • Sub-topic 1:

This was the definition of 'of' from the 1989 edition of the OED:

XIV. In the sense belonging or pertaining to; expressing possession and its converse: 'the owner of the house', 'the house of the owner'.

Formerly expressed by the genitive, and still to some extent by the possessive case (with transposition of order). The use of 'of' began in Old English with senses 47, 48, expressing origin. After the Norman Conquest the example of the French 'de', which had taken the place of the L. genitive, caused the gradual extension of 'of' to all uses in which Old English had the genitive; the purely possessive sense was the last to be so affected, and it is that in which the genitive or 'possessive' case is still chiefly used. Thus, we say the King's English, in preference to the English of the King; but the King of England in preference to England's King, which is not natural or ordinary prose English.

When I went on-line in September of 2010 I found this "new and improved " revision:

X. Expressing possession and being possessed Eg 'the owner of the house', 'the house of the owner'. Generally regarded as one of the central uses of the word.

Formerly expressed by the genitive case, and still to some extent by the genitive of nouns (especially proper names) and possessive adjectives (with transposition of order). The use of 'of' began in Old English with senses 33, 34, expressing origin. After the Norman Conquest the example of the French 'de', which had taken the place of the Latin genitive, caused the gradual extension of 'of' to all uses in which Old English had the genitive; the purely possessive sense was the last to be so affected, and it is that in which the genitive or 'possessive' case is still chiefly used. Thus, we say the King's English, in preference to the English of the King; but the King of England in preference to England's King, which is not natural or ordinary prose English.

The 'pertaining to' condition has been removed and the choice of words condensed to 'Expressing possession and being possessed' along with the comment 'Generally regarded as one of the central uses of the word,' being added; these are, in my opinion, significant changes in the definition. What changes in usage have occurred that made it important enough to remove this condition together with the part about 'central uses' being added?

  • Sub-topic 2:

I'd like to highlight another change below:

1989 OED version:

50. Belonging to a thing, as something related in a way defined or implied by its nature.

(Where, the its refers to the 'something' that belongs to the thing.)

And the 2010 OED on-line definition of 'of' which reads:

36. Belonging to a thing, as a logical consequence of its nature.

The 'something' that was mentioned in the earlier definition has been strategically removed and been replaced by 'a logical consequence of' the thing's nature.

In my opinion, by not mentioning the 'something' of the earlier definition, valuable information has been lost concerning the intricate nature of the relationship between this word and the thought it is intended to convey in that context, though it could be argued that this is a matter of grammar and not one of definition; but, the change itself seems to me to be overly strategic.

The two OED editions then go on to give the same examples: e.g. the cause, effect, origin, reason, result of; the correlative, counterpart, match, opposite, original of; a copy, derivative, image, likeness of; the square, cube, logarithm, tangent, differential, or other mathematical function of. See under these words.

Grouped as follows: 1) the cause, effect, origin, reason, result of; 2) the correlative, counterpart, match, opposite, original of; 3) a copy, derivative, image, likeness of; 4) the square, cube, logarithm, tangent, differential, or other mathematical function of.

What were the usage reasons these particular changes were made in the definition of 'of?'

Are people using 'of' differently today than they were 20 years ago? For example, the comment "Generally regarded as one of the central uses of the word." that was not present 20 years ago.

Also, the shift in the logic outlined in discussion topic 2 should be of interest to anyone with a genuine interest in the English language.

My question is about the English language and a change in the definition of one of its most important prepositions and what affect this will have on future generations who will be using this "new and improved" definition who probably will not see the subtle shift in meaning that has occurred since the 1989 edition.

Please keep in mind that as The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language mentions: "'Of' is the most highly grammaticalised of all prepositions."

Here is the most rigous treatment of the word that I have seen based on the 1989 definition.

While this link shows many applications.

closed as too broad by Hot Licks, Bread, jimm101, Skooba, Nigel J Apr 2 '18 at 19:39

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    It's really hard to tell what you're asking here. Can any of us really answer definitively why OED changed a definition? – Lynn Nov 24 '11 at 5:52
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    What you've written is useful to and of interest to some of the people here, but you haven't stated much of a question. (Aside from "Could you please contact me with your thoughts about these particular changes in the definition of 'of.'", which is an inappropriate question.) I suggest that you isolate some smaller issues and ask questions about them. I suggest further that you pick out a few questions (old or new, no matter) that you find of interest, and provide answers to them. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Nov 24 '11 at 6:48
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    You could always try asking them. – Barrie England Nov 24 '11 at 7:57
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    The core request here -- "I would like to discuss changes made to the definition of 'of' in the..." -- compares poorly with the part of the FAQ that read: "If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about ______”, then you should not be asking here." The motivation for this is that the question and answer model used here is ill-suited to having a conversation. – dmckee Nov 24 '11 at 16:33
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    Prepositions are considered by some grammarians to be lexical words only in their central (locational, directional and temporal) senses. Structure words need a chapter of a grammar rather than a few lines in a dictionary. I don't think the OED compilers have intended to give new prescriptive regulations, but rather tried to improve their descriptions of how of is used. Arguably, future generations should consult [the replacement for] the CGEL rather than a dictionary if they are worried about particular constructions involving of. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 21 '12 at 13:50
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Dictionaries are interesting artifacts of writing. Where do the definitions come from? There was no god-like entity that zaps lighting bolts at a piece of paper and establishes meaning de novo. No, people just blurt out utterances and eventually we expect some consistency with those utterances and actions that result and also personal introspective feelings. And then a dictionary writer attempts to capture these feelings in other utterances.

Dictionaries are artifacts of the much more difficult putting into words what we already feel. The definitions come afterwards. A definition is a message from the definition writer to the read what the writer thinks that most people use the word for. The words of the definition are an attempt, they are not telling you exactly what the word must be.


Sure, languages change over time. People in Rome speak Italian, not Latin. But that took a few years for sound changes and syntax changes and meaning changes to take place. But that was over hundreds of years.

Similarly with the development of English from Old Saxon, many things have changed over 1000 years. The word 'of' is very slippery.

But twenty years? Most likely some individuals had looked at linguistic research over 'of' and decided that the wording of the definition was not as good as it could be.

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I don't see any cases where "of" can't mean either "possession" or "pertaining to".

"Problems of life." - The problems owned by life / The problems pertaining to life

"The property of men." - The property owned by men / The property pertaining to men

"The horrors of communism." - The horrors owned by communism / The horrors pertaining to communism

"The territorial waters of France" - The territorial waters owned by France / The territorial waters pertaining to France

You can argue that either of the two are correct. But to me one seems more fitting than the other.

Also, the fact the earlier version of the OED doesn't mention "pertaining to" but only mentions "possession" doesn't square with what we know about English prior to 1989.

"He was conscious of nothing except the blankness of the page in front of him."
Nineteen Eighty-Four, published 1949

Here I'd read "blankness of the page" more as "the blankness pertaining to the page" rather than "the blankness owned by the page."

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