(TL;DR) While reading about preposition of on OED (eg avail of, enquire of), I encountered OED's claim that the postverbal of originates from the genitive case, and from Old English. How can this claim be right, because grammatical (eg: genitive) cases affect nouns (and not verbs)?

Please expose and explain all hidden, missing semantic drifts and links. How should the etymology be interpreted, to understand how the semantic drifts abstracted and severed from the original meaning? What semantic drifts bridge of 's original meaning with the postverbal of ?

[Optional Reading] 39. In the construction of verbs.

a. After transitive verbs, the person or thing affected (‘secondary object’) is often introduced by of (representing an original genitive).
Such are balk, cheat, defraud, disappoint, frustrate; accuse, arrest, blame, convict, indict, suspect; possess, seize (a person of); avail, bethink (oneself of);
also with verbs with non-referential it as subject, as it repents me of;
and formerly with ask, beg, beseech, thank (a person of), etc.

b. In many verbal phrases, as
to have (also get) the advantage of ; to get (also have) the better of ; also formerly in to have compassion (also mercy) of ; to have (also take) pity of ; to keep watch of , demand or do justice of (= on), have the victory of (= over).

c. After intransitive verbs. Many of these in Old English took the genitive, and are found with of in Middle and Early Modern English, but this is now rare, except where of falls in sense under one of the branches already treated; instances are
to reck, repent, rue, beware (orig. be ware) of.
Verbs of sense,  e.g. feel, smell, taste, touch (still with of in regional or colloquial use),
verbs of asking,  as ask, beseech, demand, desire, entreat,
and others,  e.g. distinguish, esteem, forget, like, seize,  formerly construed with of, now take a simple object;
some, as accept, admit, allow, approve, conceive, recollect, remember,
still have both constructions;
with others, as hope, look, thirst, wait, etc.,
of has been displaced by for or some other preposition.

  • Very little, really. Of is the version of off that got bleached for use as a match for French de -- a periphrastic version of a dead or dying genitive case. In English, of functions as the default preposition linking two nouns together, which can take on just about any meaning that context allows, especially with things like picture nouns where predicates are involved. In essence, of -- like be -- doesn't have any meaning; it's just a cog in the grammatical machinery.
    – jlawler
    Jul 25, 2015 at 17:06
  • 1
    Are you asking about the etymology (original meaning) of "of", implying that you don't know? Are you asking how it could be that a case-suffixation requirement of a verb could be changed to a requirement for a particular prepositional phrase complement? Can you narrow your question?
    – user6726
    Jul 25, 2015 at 18:27
  • @user6726 I answer each of your interrogatives. 1. No, I'm not asking JUST about the etymology (original meaning) of "of". Instead, I'm asking about about its use after verbs, and its evolution from its original meaning into a postverbal preposition. 2. My naivety in linguistics affects my understanding of this second question, but I would be interested to know a case-suffixation requirement...prepositional phrase complement, if this answers 1. 3. Yes, but please advise what seems vague. Moreover, please feel free to edit my OP on my behalf!
    – user5306
    Jul 26, 2015 at 1:00

1 Answer 1


Your question seems to be based on the assumption that "because grammatical (eg: genitive) cases affect nouns (and not verbs)". But that is not the case (sorry).

A case is generally expressed through morpheme marking on the noun. But the specific case assigned to the noun depends on entirely on the head of the phrase which could be a preposition (e.g I showed up with her.) So when the case marking disappeared, the analytic replacement of the synthetic genitive simply took on the role.

In modern grammars and dictionaries of English, the 'of' is included as part of the phrase which simply takes the noun as an argument. But you could just as well think of the 'of' as part of a 'marking' on the following noun phrase that fits into the argument requiring a genitive.

There are a number of metaphors used in linguistics to talk about this. The metaphor from logic is one of argument taken by the verb. Generative grammar (most commonly in its GB incarnation) talks about thematic roles or theta roles. But there's also a tradition of European syntax that talks about the valence of the verb which draws on the idea of valence from chemistry.

  • "of" and "off" are related with Latin ab.
    – rogermue
    Jul 26, 2015 at 17:21

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