To non-native English speakers, usage of preposition is always a headache. When I consulted the definition of “of” with an English Japanese dictionary at hand, it gives 16 different patterns of usage starting from 1. possession, 2. attribution / belonging, 3. relationship / contents / limit, 4. equality / apposition, to 13. distance / range, 14. subject of action, 15. object of action, 16. causes / motives. It's far beyond my ability to master all of them.

With that said, I was interested in the function of ‘of’ in the following paragraph of Jeffrey Archer’s “Kane & Abel”:

After the feast Wladek enjoyed distributing gifts from Christmas tree, laden with candles and fruit, to the awestruck peasant children –a doll for Sophia, a forest knife for Josef, a new dress, a new dress for Florentyna – the first gift Wladek had ever requested of* the Baron. ‘Is it true,’ asked Josef of** his mother when he received a gift from Wladek, ‘that he is not our brother, Matka? ‘No, she replied, ‘but he will always be my son.’

I can understand the use of ‘of*’ The dictionary gives an example – He requested of his guests that they sit down.

But with the second ‘of,’ the Kodansha’s English Japanese Dictionary defines “ask A of B” as “demand A (thing) to B (person) as in ‘That’s asking too much of John.’ However, in the above quote, Josef is simply asking a question to his mother, not demanding a thing.

Is ‘of**’ indispensable in the sentence -‘Is it true,’ asked Josef of his mother ‘that he is not our brother? Doesn’t it make sense at all, if I wrote ‘Is it true,’ asked Josef (to) his mother,’ by omitting ‘of’?


When the two words are in the order Josef asked, then no preposition is required:

"Is it true," Josef asked his mother, "that he is not our brother?"

Moreover, if we don't need to specify who Josef is asking, then no preposition is required:

"Is it true," asked Josef, "that he is not our brother?"

However, when we use the order asked Josef, and we want to specify who Josef is asking, then we need some preposition:

"Is it true," asked Josef of his mother, "that he is not our brother?"
"Is it true," asked Josef to his mother, "that he is not our brother?"
"Is it true," asked Josef from his mother, "that he is not our brother?"

Why of, instead of to or from? That's hard to explain. I just checked Macmillan (5 definitions of ask, 21 definitions of of) and Collins (25 definitions of of, 10 definitions of ask), and I could find no definitive entry that made the answer to your question obvious. The best answer I can provide from those sources is Meaning #2 of ask from Collins:

ask [trans. verb] to put a question to (a person); inquire of

but even that doesn't make it evident why we need a preposition when the word ordering is Josef asked, but not if the word ordering is asked Josef, or why of would be the preposition of choice.

Suffice to say that you shouldn't feel unenlightened if you feel confused by the issue. It's not something that's easily discerned by studying dictionary definitions.


Is of indispensable in the sentence - “‘Is it true,’ asked Josef of his mother, ‘that he is not our brother?”

Yes, unless the sentence is reworded to a form like “‘Is it true,’ Josef asked his mother...”.

Does it make sense [to write] “‘Is it true,’ asked Josef (to) his mother,’” by omitting ‘of’?

No. One could (and should) omit of in the following: “‘Is it true,’ Josef asked of his mother...”

  • If only we could find a reason why. – Kris Oct 30 '12 at 8:07
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    “‘Is it true,’ Josef asked his mother...” in (the variation of) SVOO form, that was the idea I had first in mind. But I thought there should be some reasons for Archer to use inversion. So I didn't change the original order of OVSO text omitting 'of.' But it doesn't seem to work. – Yoichi Oishi Oct 30 '12 at 8:08
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    I think there are several reasons for the inversion that are of minor importance individually, but taken together justify use of inversion: 1, Parallelism of of the Baron and of his mother sounds better. 2, Flatness of Josef asked his mother sounds worse. 3, Slightly more emphasis on Josef as subject. 4, More separation of the second sentence from the first, ie a hint the second sentence is a tangent thought, not a continuation. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Oct 30 '12 at 8:30

‘Is it true,’ asked Josef of his mother, ‘that he is not our brother?

I'd say the use of of here is archaic. Conventional English may prefer dispensing with the preposition and switching the verb and noun:

‘Is it true,’ Josef asked his mother...

Well, if you wanted to know if the preposition is required in the given structure, I'd still say it's dispensable without loss of meaning or probably even grammaticality.

‘Is it true,’ asked Josef his mother.

The given construction is a hypothetical case. I have not been able to find any grammatical requirement or justification for the preposition, esp., of; only a sense of convention. In short, there appears to be no rule saying the prep. is necessary.

  • I think you mean 'indispensable' as your last sentence reads as if a boy's mother, whose name is Josef?!, was asking her son if it is true. – Jim Oct 30 '12 at 4:38
  • @Jim I see a difference between asked Joseph's mother and asked Joseph his mother. – Kris Oct 30 '12 at 4:45
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    @Kris- I see a difference too: I'm okay with the first one while the second one is either ungrammatical or missing a comma. Josef asked his mother is okay but when you invert to "Asked Josef" I think you need the of. – Jim Oct 30 '12 at 4:52
  • @Jim Actually, I haven't constructions of the kind 'asked of' for quite some time -- it may be because we do not use the form any more. – Kris Oct 30 '12 at 4:57
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    Yes, I agree it isn't much used, and that, as jwpat7 says, Josef asked his mother is probably the preferred phrasing, it just sounds dreadfully wrong inverted without the of – Jim Oct 30 '12 at 5:00

Ask of seems to have more the sense of requesting something to be done, where ask on its own simply describes the act of putting a question. This is perhaps particularly apparent in a pair such as:

Ask anyone you like. They’ll all say you’re wrong.


It’s a lot to ask of anyone.

  • +1 This is precisely what I believed, and thought of when I read the post. However, OP's sentence is not exactly of this type (asking to know vs. asking for something). On a different note, usage even in this sense, is not common in conventional writing. – Kris Oct 30 '12 at 7:58
  • True. Just thought it was worth mentioning. – Barrie England Oct 30 '12 at 8:00

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