There was the line, “It’s one of those places that’s not on the water but of the water,” in the article of May 25 New York Times titled “How I fell for Lisbon,” an enticing reading for anyone who has ever been there.

It goes as follows:

A major port in a country with a rich and proud seafaring history, Lisbon has a connection to the ocean – the Tagus meets the Atlantic only a dozen or so miles away – that is essential, intimate and palpable. It’s one of those places that’s not just on the water but of water.

I’m not able to get a clear idea about the difference between ‘place on the water’ and ‘place of the water.’ How can I interpret the difference of 'on' and 'of' (the water)?

  • 2
    You’re asking what the difference is between two different prepositions, on and of. Seems a bit basic to me.
    – tchrist
    Jun 4, 2012 at 12:17
  • @tchrist. I can understand the literal meanings of ‘on,’ and the image of the city built ‘on’ (or by) the water like Venice and Amsterdam. Both cities are actually built on water while Lisbon is built ‘by’ water. The image of city (made) ‘of’ water, the liquid doesn’t come straight to me because of the lack of imagination, though I can understand a house (made) of wood and paper, the city (made) of iron, concrete - the solid substance. Jun 4, 2012 at 19:49

3 Answers 3


The answer lies in the two cases of the two prepositions.

On the water; this would be the dative case (case of the indirect object), its usage here is best understood as a locative dative, i.e. The city located on the water.

Of the water; this is the genitive case (case of possession), its usage here is best understood as an attributive genitive, i.e. The city which is a part of the water, or who shares an innate quality with the water.

The intention of the phrase is to highlight that the city does not only happen to be next to the water, but has a strong affinity with the water-y lifestyle; the people and city represent the quintessential sea-people and sea-town.


“It’s one of those places that’s not on the water but of the water.” means, as the article states a little later, that the city's very close connection to or inseparable relationship with the Tagus and the Atlantic defines the character of the city. Lisbon without that river and the ocean would not be Lisbon. Everything about that city is identified with the water.

In this case, for the phrase of the water, the writer is using this definition of "of": constituted by, containing, or characterized by.

On the water just means that the city is geographically located next to a body of water.


It's an interesting topic to raise: "A city not just on the water but of water."

If I were the mayor of a city and I suddenly decided to make a kind of tourism gimmick by moving houses, shops, restaurants etc. by and partly on the sea - perhaps even going so far as to build them on stilts - would you pay to come to my new city?

Or would you prefer to go to Lisbon, Seattle, and Italy? Places that have a long, deep and genuine connection and culture with the sea and seamen?

I suppose most people would choose the latter because my imaginary city is in fact physically and artificially ON the sea but it is not OF the sea.


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