This question came up while doing syntax homework. It seems to me that prepositional phrases with "of" can only ever be complements to nouns, not adjuncts. The basis for my conclusion was that, while you can reorder adjuncts freely (1, 2), albeit perhaps with issues of scope/ambiguity, you cannot have an adjunct intervene between a head and its complement (3,4), and I have yet to find an example in which "of" can be reordered felicitously.

(1)  The cat with stripes in the garden
(2)  The cat in the garden with stripes 
     (=intended meaning same as 1)
(3)  The book of poetry with a red cover
(4) *The book with a red cover of poetry

Perhaps my judgments and conclusions are off -- if so, please explain a reliable way for telling adjuncts/complements apart.

The second part to my question -- assuming "of" phrases cannot be complements -- is why this would be, whether there is some cross-linguistic generalization or whether it is just an historical quirk of English.

  • 1
    Voted off-topic. This is a question specifically about English syntax, rather than a general syntax question, and so should be on english.se. Oct 13, 2011 at 15:46
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    I disagree. I am asking also about whether there are any cross-linguistic aspects to this phenomenon.
    – user325
    Oct 13, 2011 at 17:37
  • There are curious adjunct uses of "of-phrases" as in "a man of honor", which correspond to the Latin genitive of description. Nov 3, 2011 at 22:51

3 Answers 3


One example of a non-argument of-phrase would be of-possessives. (Possessors are by definition not arguments.) The best way to make sure that an of phrase is really a possessive is to mark it (redundantly) with 's:

(1) That dog of John's is really vicious.

It is less than clear, syntactically/semantically speaking, what is going on here (Why the double-marking of possessive? Is there some kind of partitivity? What, if any, is the difference in meaning between the above and "John's dog"?) – but it is clear that this is a non-argument of-phrase.

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    These aren't what is usually referred to as "of"-possessives, they are double genitives and have quite different properties. "Of" possessives are things like "a friend of Bill" and actually, this kind of possessive construction involves only arguments to relational nouns. (There is a debate about whether "'s" possessives are all adjuncts, but the state of things is far from clear.) For an overview of the descriptive terminology standardly used, see section 1.2 of this Barker paper: springerlink.com/content/h0193p1774h137p7
    – kgr
    Oct 13, 2011 at 19:22

Here are some cases where an adjunct (always locative) comes before the "of" complement.

a case in my files of embezzlement

the painting on the wall of Sir Winston Churchill

the incidence in Europe of alcoholism

They're all marked constructions (putting a focus on the locative, I think), but I find them all to be grammatical.

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    I agree, those sentences sound good, although maybe a little strange/marked. What's a better way to tell adjuncts and complements apart then?
    – user325
    Oct 13, 2011 at 13:13

So, for anybody out there also wondering about this, I asked my syntax professor.

One-substitution is apparently a fairly reliable way to distinguish complements and adjuncts (at least in English).

(1) The student of physics --> *The one of physics

(2) The student from Kansas --> The one from Kansas (ok)

Regarding placement, English has extraposition, which allows PPs to move rightward.

(3) I bought a painting of the Eiffel Tower yesterday.

(4) I bought a painting yesterday of the Eiffel Tower.

Of course, I am interested now in whether other languages have such a (seemingly) ad-hoc rule as extraposition. :) But I think that answers whatever was left of the question after Aaron and Colin Fine's answers.

  • Minor point: Extraposition from NP (the rule exemplified above) is a quite different rule from Extraposition (which involves dummy it subjects).
    – jlawler
    Dec 5, 2011 at 15:18

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